What if I don’t want to study A-Levels?

When you think of sixth form, A-levels are probably the first thing that comes to mind. This route can be good for you if you 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, you may have decided you don’t want to pursue academic subjects any further. You may already know what you want to do as a career and want to pursue that specialism now.

Or, you may have non-academic talents or interests and further education is a great chance for you to explore you 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
  • BTECs
  • NVQs (National Vocational Qualification)
  • Apprenticeships
  • Which qualification should you pick? How can you narrow down your options?

What are vocational qualifications?

Vocational qualifications are hands-on. They will teach you knowledge and skills relating to specific career areas and then show you how to apply them within a work-based setting.

This article is going to explore three vocational qualifications you 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.
– 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 means you can start off doing one at whichever level suits you – so, if you know nothing at the moment about a particular area or role, you can start off on a lower level and move up as they gain experience. Once you have reached a certain level you may be able to secure a job, or you can continue studying to a higher level.

Whilst it may be easy to fall into this trap, you shouldn’t focus too much on which levels are equivalent to which qualification; instead you should focus on what level will match your level of experience or which level you can start at based on your GCSE grades. 


  • You will be predominantly based in a specific sixth form or college.
  • The course includes hands-on work experience in the industry.  
  • Can give access to university, though you may need additional qualifications depending on the course and the university, always be sure to check if you have a course or university in mind

Levels of BTEC

Different levels of BTEC are equivalent to different qualifications: some are equivalent to GCSEs, others A-levels. If you want to study a BTEC instead of A-levels then it’s likely you 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.

Entry requirements

Like A-levels, BTECs have entry requirements. As such, you 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 you are struggling with their GCSEs and may not get the grades required to do a BTEC National Diploma! There are many levels of BTEC available; you can start on a lower level of BTEC and work your way up. The flow diagram below can give you an idea of the paths you can take.


How are BTECs taught and assessed?

BTECS are predominantly based around classroom learning. This means that you will spend most of their time at sixth form or college. Your course will include work placements where you will apply what you have 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 you will be assessed at the end of each unit and given a grade, which are then averaged to give a final grade.

BTEC Grades Explained

When you finish your BTEC level 3 qualification (National Diploma) you 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. You 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 nearby which offer BTECs and see if any courses interest you. 

Another approach is to find a course or area you’re 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 interests, strengths and weaknesses, and then narrow down the options based on these. Research is key: the more research you do now, the more you will know what the course will involve and if you are likely to enjoy it.

The options below contain links to Youth Employment UK‘s website which you can use to explore different career options.

What can you do after a BTEC?

Once you’ve completed your BTEC there are many routes you 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.


Go to university

If you 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.


If you wants to go to university you should look at potential courses now so you get an idea of exactly what qualifications you will need to get onto the course of your 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.


If this is the route you want to take then it’s important to check the entry requirements of any university courses you’re interested in. A BTEC alone may not be enough to get you 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. You will likely be a full-time or part-time employee and will be completing your NVQ as you 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, you will put together a portfolio which is evidence of what you’ve been doing to show that they meet the required standards. You will also be observed doing certain tasks by an assessor who will then grade you against an industry standard, before being assessed as being either ‘competent’ or ‘not yet competent’.

The biggest positive with NVQs is that the units are assessed only when you are ready to pass that unit. This flexibility sets you up for success. You aren’t pressured to pass an exam at the end of a set period of time even if you don’t feel ready. This takes the pressure off and enables you to learn at your own speed. Instead of potentially scraping through exams when you aren’t ready, you are only assessed when they are highly likely to pass which is much better for confidence and morale.

NVQ levels

There are five levels of NVQ (not including entry level), and each one involves the teaching and application of particular work-based competencies. If you have no experience then you might choose to 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.

Information collated from Reed

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. 


You can opt to 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
  • Catering
  • Construction
  • Communications
  • Design
  • Plumbing
  • 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 you. Once you’ve found an area or specific qualification which interests you, you can then 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 you do with an NVQ?

Get a job

If you’re studying for the NVQ, you’ll probably be studying within a place of work. This will provide you will skills and a network which will lend you both better job satisfaction and afford you more opportunities to progress in your career. If you have an NVQ, employers are likely to have more confidence choosing to employ you, or you may be offered more responsibility or a promotion at the place you already work. When looking for other jobs, this formal qualification demonstrates how skilled you are in for field, helping you find employment.

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 DiplomasFoundation Degrees and Bachelor’s degrees

However, like our advice for BTECs, if you want to go down this route it’s important that you research courses and entry requirements carefully. Feel free to pick up the phone and ring the admissions office for advice, as 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 you time will be spent on placement. The remaining time will be spent at a place of study. This means you will need to have good time management skills, and be able to balance the two aspects of your course if you choose to study for an apprenticeship. 

Getting paid

The biggest difference between apprenticeships and BTECs and NVQs (if done through a college with placements instead of through a workplace) is that you will get paid while you learn. Apprentices are employed for the duration of their apprenticeships and even you get holiday pay. What you will earn depends on your age, which part of the country you live in and which apprenticeship you are undertaking.

Taken from the government’s guide to apprenticeships

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.

Apprenticeship levels

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 you choose to become an apprentice, your 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 you are completing:


Like BTECS and NVQs, you 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.


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: nationalhelpdesk@findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk.
  • 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 you have found an apprenticeship you are interested in you should register through the government website here and apply. Applications are similar to filling out a CV. You should take time to work out what you will write in each box. If applying for multiple apprenticeships (it’s best for you to apply for a few options in case you don’t get your preferred choice) you need to make sure what you write is specific to the role you’re applying for: don’t just copy and paste!

What can you do after your apprenticeship?

Continue working

It’s likely you will have done your apprenticeship with a company. When you finish your apprenticeship, if the company are impressed with your aptitude and dedication, they may offer you 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.


Regardless, your employability will be much higher once you’ve completed your 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

You will have built a solid foundation of skills during your apprenticeship which will likely be backed up with an NVQ qualification. You can progress onto advanced and higher level apprenticeships which will further your skills and knowledge. These skills will enable you to progress onto higher positions within a company.

Which qualification to pick and how to narrow down your 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 you should focus on factors which are important to you: do you find the industry interesting and does the style of teaching and assessment suit you? 

What industry should you pick?

If you are fanatical about bikes and cycling, they could find an apprenticeship as a bike mechanic. If you loves working with young children, you could go for an NVQ in childcare. If you’ve always dreamed of working in a pharmacy, you 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.

Which qualification?

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. Which type of qualification you decides on should be determined by your strengths, character and which form of learning and assessment will suit you best. 

Things to consider: 

  • What type of learner are you? (If you don’t like sitting in a classroom then a BTEC may be low on your list).
  • Are you motivated by money? In which case you may be drawn to an apprenticeship or want to do an NVQ as part of a job. 
  • Do you want to go to university? A BTEC may be the best option.
  • Do you want to work for a particular company? What qualifications do you need to do this? Or, can you 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 to explore. The most important thing to do is to research all your choices thoroughly and then narrow them down based on the factors that are the most important to you. These could be as simple as which option has the easiest commute, which assessment format or teaching style will suit you better, or which college or company you would prefer to do your qualification with. While it may seem like your 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 you with a qualification that will launch your career – and some of which can act as stepping stones to higher education. Thus, with a little research and careful consideration, you can look forward to job satisfaction and success.

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