When you think of sixth form, A-levels are probably the first thing that comes to mind. This route can be good for students who are interested in academic subjects. However, for many students these types of qualifications aren’t the best option.
Many students find it difficult to engage with traditional teaching methods which typically include textbook-based learning, cramming and recall and a focus on written rather practical assessments. As a result, by sixteen, students may have decided they don’t want to pursue academic subjects any further. Some may already know what they want to do as a career and want to pursue that specialism now. Others may have non-academic talents or interests and further education is a great chance for them to explore their passions while gaining qualifications. In both these instances, vocational qualifications, which tend to be focused more on skills and their application in the workplace, are good options to explore.
What are vocational qualifications?
Vocational qualifications are hands-on. They teach students knowledge and skills relating to specific career areas and apply them within a work-based setting.
This article is going to explore three vocational qualifications your child can do instead of A-levels: BTECs, NVQs and Apprenticeships. It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list, there are other options available (for example, the government have just launched new vocational qualifications called T-levels), but these three are the most established and widely known.
These qualifications should in no way be considered inferior to A-levels; they are a totally different kettle of fish. Although their methods of assessment are very different to A-levels, they are robust and align with industry approved standards.
A common misconception is that A-levels are the only route into higher education (university) and the only qualification type that will guarantee you career success. However, according to Pearson (the awarding body for BTEC)….
– In 2015, over 25% of the students entering university in England did so with a BTEC qualification.https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/btec-nationals.html
– 90% of BTEC students are employed full time after graduation – Progression Pathways, 2016.
– A level 3 BTEC qualification can boost lifetime earnings by £92,000 – London Economics, 2013.
BTECs, NVQs and Apprenticeships have many different levels. This enables students to start at the level which suits them. If your child knows nothing about a particular area or role, then they will start off at a lower level and move up as they gain experience. Once they have reached a certain level they may be able to secure a job, or they can continue studying to a higher level. Your child shouldn’t focus too much on which levels are equivalent to which qualification; instead they should focus on what level will match their level of experience or which level they can start at based on their GCSE grades.
- Students are predominantly based in their sixth form or college.
- The course includes hands-on work experience in the industry.
- Can give access to university (your child may need additional qualifications alongside their BTEC).
Levels of BTEC
Different levels of BTEC are equivalent to different qualifications: some are equivalent to GCSEs, others A-levels. If your child is going to study a BTEC instead of A-levels then it’s likely they will apply to study for a BTEC National Diploma. You can study National Diplomas alongside other qualifications too, as they can be studied full or part-time.
Like A-levels, BTECs have entry requirements. As such, your child may need to have achieved certain GCSE grades in particular subjects to apply for a course; requirements vary depending on the area of study and host institution.
But don’t despair if your child is struggling with their GCSEs and may not get the grades required to do a BTEC National Diploma! There are many levels of BTEC available; your child can start on a lower level of BTEC and work their way up. The flow diagram below can give you an idea of the paths your child can take.
How are BTECs taught and assessed?
BTECS are predominantly based around classroom learning. This means that your child will spend most of their time at sixth form or college. Their course will include work placements where they will apply what they’ve learnt in class to a real life setting.
Unlike A-levels, which comprise two years of study with the majority of assessments or exams coming at the end, BTECs are assessed periodically. The qualification is designed around a number of themed units, and students are assessed at the end of each unit and given a grade. These grades average to give a final grade.
BTEC Grades Explained
When your child completes their BTEC level 3 qualification (National Diploma) they will be awarded one of the following grades:
- D* – starred distinction
- D – distinction
- M – merit
- P – pass
The type of assessment at the end of each unit will depend on the subject studied or course. Your child might have coursework assignments which are designed to combine the theory learned in class to what has been learned on placements. There may also be practicals or written tests.
There are so many BTECs on offer – the possibilities are endless. One approach is to look at the sixth form/colleges near you which offer BTECs and see if any courses interest your child.
Another approach is to find a course or area your child is interested in and then find a sixth form/college which teaches the course. For this option it’s good to start off broad, bearing in mind your child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses, and then narrow down the options based on these. Research is key: the more research you and your child do now, the more you will know what the course will involve and if they are likely to enjoy it.
The options below contain links to Youth Employment UK‘s website which your child can use to explore different career options.
- Art and design
- IT and digital
- Performing arts
- Service industries (e.g. hospitality and catering, travel and tourism)
- Land-based industries (e.g. construction)
What can your child do after a BTEC?
Once your child has completed their BTEC there are many routes they can go down.
Get a job
Employers look to employ people who have industry-specific knowledge and skills: BTEC students have both. This makes BTEC students/alumni uniquely employable.
74% of employers want new hires with practical knowledge and skills combined, 90% of BTEC students are employed full-time after graduating and 23% of students who went to university in 2018 had a BTEC.Pearson (the qualifying body of BTEC).
Go to university
If your child would like to go to university then a BTEC can be a good route to go down. According to Pearson, “in 2016 nearly 1 in 4 students who got into university did so with a BTEC”.
In recent years, universities have noticed an increase in students with BTECs applying. Laura Kishore, Head of Admissions at Oxford Brookes University, says:
We have seen a definite rise in the proportion of applicants with BTEC qualifications in the past few years. Also, now that BTEC Level 3 qualifications come in different sizes (i.e. not just the equivalent of three A-Levels, but the size of two or even one A-Level), we have seen an even bigger rise in the numbers of applicants offering both BTEC and A-Level qualifications.Laura Kishore, Head of Admissions at Oxford Brookes University
If your child wants to go to university you should look at potential courses now so you get an idea of exactly what qualifications your child will need to get onto the course of their dreams. The Good Schools Guide explains:
A BTEC comprises of a set number of units. An 18-unit BTEC equates to three A levels, and many universities will accept it. But students applying to university who have a 12-unit BTEC may well be expected to have an AS or an A level too. It’s worth noting that 95 per cent of the UK’s universities accept BTEC Nationals as qualifications for over 70 percent of their degree courses.The Good Schools Guide
If this is the route your child wants to take then it’s important to check the entry requirements of any university courses they have set their eyes on . A BTEC alone may not be enough to get your child on a course and it’s important to find this out now so you can make it happen or decide on a different route.
NVQs (National Vocational Qualification)
- NVQs are similar to BTEC in that they combine learning with experience in the sector.
- This qualification demonstrates competence in a certain job/area.
- You can study NVQs as part of your job, at college, or as part of an apprenticeship.
How are NVQs taught and assessed?
Unlike BTECs, which are classroom-based with placements, most NVQs are based in the workplace. Your child will likely be a full-time or part-time employee and will be completing their NVQ as they work. Another (but less common) option is taking an NVQ at a college with work placements to gain industry experience.
Like BTECs, most NVQs are divided into units. A candidate’s competency is assessed at the end of each unit. However, there are no exams! Instead, students put together portfolios which are evidence of what they’ve been doing to show that they meet the required standards. Students are also observed doing certain tasks by an assessor who will grade them against an industry standard. Candidates are assessed as being either ‘competent’ or ‘not yet competent’.
The biggest positive with NVQs is that the units are assessed only when the candidate is ready to pass that unit. This flexibility sets students up for success. Candidates aren’t pressured to pass an exam at the end of a set period of time even if they don’t feel ready. This takes the pressure off and enables them to learn at their own speed. Instead of potentially scraping through exams when they aren’t ready, students are only assessed when they are highly likely to pass which is much better for confidence and morale.
There are five levels of NVQ (not including entry level), and each one involves the teaching and application of particular work-based competencies. If your child has no experience then they will generally start off at a lower level in order to gain experience.
The table below shows the different NVQ levels available, what level they are suited to and what qualification they are equivalent to. NVQs are available at levels 1–5, while Level 2 and 3 NVQs are also available as part of an apprenticeship.
You can take as long as you want to do each level. Generally, however, most learners take about one year to complete an NVQ at level 1 and 2 and around two years for an NVQ at level 3.
Your child can do an NVQ in a range of different areas. According to the Good Schools Guide, the most popular NVQs are in:
- Administration and management
- Beauty and hairdressing
- Care of the elderly and children
- Social Care
- Travel and tourism
You can search NVQ courses on the NVQ courses hub website. This website will give you an idea of the range of options available to your child. Once they have found an area or specific qualification which interests them, they should research places where they can do them. This will either be while employed (for example, you can do an NVQ in Health and Social Care while working as a care assistant or support worker in a care setting) or through a college (for example, you can study for a diploma in health and social care at a college which would include placements in a care setting).
What can your child do with their NVQ?
Get a job
It’s likely your child will have gained their NVQ as part of their place of work. Being more skilled in their line of work will not only give them better job satisfaction but will also afford them more opportunities to progress in their careers. This is because, with an NVQ to their name, an employer’s confidence in your child’s ability may increase. Your child could be awarded more responsibility or even be promoted! Furthermore, if your child decides to change company, having a formal qualification which proves that they are skilled and competent will make it easier for them to find employment in a new company.
If your child completes their NVQ in a college and hasn’t got a job yet then their new qualification will make them more attractive to employers and will hopefully make their job hunt much quicker.
Go to university
An NVQ at level 3 is the equivalent of an A-level and some NVQs are recognised by universities. NI Direct say: “if you’ve achieved an NVQ at level 3, you could also go on to a higher education course in a related vocational area such as: Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas, Foundation Degrees and Bachelor’s degrees“
However, like our advice for BTECs, if your child wants to go down this route it’s important that you research courses and entry requirements carefully. Your child shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ring the admissions office for advice, they will be more than happy to discuss what qualifications are needed for their courses.
- Earn while you learn
- 80% of time on placement with the remainder in college studying
Apprenticeships are similar to both BTECs and NVQs in that learning is very much centred on practical knowledge and the application of skills. Around 80% of your child’s time will be spent on placement. The remaining time will be spent at a place of study. This means students need to have good time management skills, and be able to balance the two aspects of their course.
The biggest difference between apprenticeships and BTECs and NVQs (if done through a college with placements instead of through a workplace) is that apprentices are paid while they learn. Apprentices are employed for the duration of their apprenticeships and even get holiday pay. What your child will earn depends on their age, which part of the country they are in and which apprenticeship they are undertaking.
Apprentices should work for a minimum of 30 hours a week and a maximum of 40. Time spent at a college or in training is included in this time.
There are four levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, advanced, higher and degree. The entry requirements vary depending on the level applied for.
Apprenticeships can take different lengths of time to complete – anything from 1-6 years depending on the level and area of study. Like NVQs, it is often possible to progress onto higher level apprenticeships.
How are apprenticeships taught and assessed?
If your child chooses to become an apprentice, their time will be split between on-the-job training (80%) and classroom-based college learning (20%).
Assessments are usually carried out by the training provider, and externally assured by an awarding organisation for recognised qualifications. You ‘achieve’ an apprenticeship; there aren’t any pass marks [such as merit or distinction].
The way in which apprentices are assessed depends upon what is being studied. Methods may/might include:
- a practical assessment
- an interview
- a project
- written and/or multiple-choice tests
- a presentation
Some apprenticeships require an assessment at the end of study, this is called an end-point assessment (EPA).
Gaining an NVQ
Many apprenticeships integrate the completion of an NVQ qualification during their training period. The level of NVQ attained depends on which level of apprenticeship your child is completing:
- Intermediate apprentices will often work towards an NVQ at Level 2
- Advanced apprentices will work towards an NVQ at Level 3
- Higher apprentices will focus their efforts on attaining an NVQ at Level 4
Like BTECS and NVQs, your child can do an apprenticeship in a huge range of sectors. According to the government, in 2018/2019
83% of all starts were in four subject areas: Business, Administration and Law; Health, Public Services and Care; Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies and Retail & Commercial Enterprise.Apprenticeship statistics for England
There are many ways of finding an apprenticeship:
- The government has a ‘find an apprenticeship’ service on their website.
- You can contact the National Apprenticeship Helpdesk on 0800 015 0400 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Amazing Apprenticeships YouTube channel has useful hints and tips on applying plus other videos on apprenticeships; simply visit YouTube and search apprenticeships/NAS.
- You may also be able to contact local businesses and ask if they are taking on or would be interested in taking on apprentices.
One your child has found an apprenticeship they are interested in they should register through the government website here and apply. Applications are similar to filling out a CV. Your child should take time to work out what they will write in each box. If applying for multiple apprenticeships (it’s best for your child to apply for a few options in case they don’t get their preferred choice) they need to make sure what they write is specific to the role they’re applying for: don’t just copy and paste!
What can your child do after their apprenticeship?
It’s likely your child will have done their apprenticeship with a company. When your child has finished their apprenticeship, if the company are impressed with your child’s aptitude and dedication, they may offer your child a job. An Apprentice Learner survey, which questioned over 5,000 apprentices, found:
After finishing their scheme, as many as 85% of apprentices will stay in employment, with two-thirds (64%) remaining with the same employer. The survey […] also found that one in three (32%) of all former apprentices received a promotion within a year of completing their apprenticeship, whilst three-quarters (75%) stated that they were given more responsibility in their role.Reed Recruitment
Regardless, your child’s employability will be much higher once they’ve completed their qualification. The same report found:
Almost 9 in 10 (87%) apprentices ‘strongly agree’ that they feel more confident in their own abilities as a result of undertaking their apprenticeship – 80% of whom state it provided them with the sector-relevant skills and knowledge needed to boost their career prospects both in the short and long term.
Continue in education
Your child will have built a solid foundation of skills during their apprenticeship which will likely be backed up with an NVQ qualification. Your child can progress onto advanced and higher level apprenticeships which will further their skills and knowledge. These skills will enable them to progress onto higher positions within a company.
Which qualification to pick and how to narrow down your child’s options
These qualifications provide practical routes into work. Their hands-on approach is especially suited for practical people who prefer doing things instead of spending hours reading about them. When considering a course your child should focus on factors which are important to them: do they find the industry interesting and does the style of teaching and assessment suit them?
What industry should your child pick?
If your child is fanatical about bikes and cycling, they could find an apprenticeship as a bike mechanic. If your child loves working with young children, they could do an NVQ in childcare. If they’ve always dreamed of working in a pharmacy, they can become an apprentice pharmacy assistant. The possibilities are endless, and BTECs, NVQs and Apprenticeships are all possible in the majority of industries. Pick a passion and work from there.
You may feel that encouraging your child to go down a vocational route is a big gamble. Maybe the closest they have ever got to being an electrician is making a moisture detector in D&T in year 8. Or maybe your child loves doing nails and makeup but that’s a far cry from becoming a beautician. You have no idea if their interest will last out a 2-year course and eventual career. A good way for your child to test out their passion is to try and get some work experience in the industry. For example, if your child loves styling hair, they should enquire at their local hairdressers to see if they would let them do some work experience. If your child loves making or building things, you may have a friend who is a carpenter who they could shadow.
There is a lot of overlap in terms of the qualifications available in each industry. For example, you can do an BTEC in Engineering, NVQs in Engineering and do Engineering Apprenticeships. This means your child is spoilt for choice. Which type of qualification your child decides on should be determined by their strengths, character and which form of learning and assessment will suit them best.
Things to consider:
- What type of learner is your child? (If they don’t like sitting in a classroom then a BTEC may be low on their list).
- Are they motivated by money? In which case they may be drawn to an apprenticeship or want to do an NVQ as part of a job.
- Do they want to go to university? A BTEC may be the best option.
- Do they want to work for a particular company? What qualifications do they need to do this? Or, can your child do an apprenticeship or NVQ with them?
These are not your only options! Still unsure of what to do? UCAS have a short quiz to help you work out what types of qualifications would suit you.
There are many options for you and your child to explore. The most important thing to do is to research all their choices thoroughly and then narrow them down based on the factors that are the most important to your child. These could be as simple as which option has the easiest commute, which assessment format or teaching style will suit them better, or which college or company your child would prefer to do their qualification with. While it may seem like your child’s future is uncertain, there’s one thing you can be sure of: There are a plethora of options in a range of fields, each able to provide your child with a qualification that will launch their career – and some of which can act as stepping stones to higher education. Thus, with a little research and careful consideration, your child can look forward to job satisfaction and success.