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University is not the only route

Education signpostA levels followed by university may still be the route most young people will take towards their career, but it’s by no means the only way. In the past vocational options such as BTECs and apprenticeships have suffered from being regarded as somehow inferior to academic qualifications, but such unfavourable comparison is long out of date. If the prospect of A levels, university and a large debt is giving you or your child pause for thought, it could be time to consider alternatives.


BTECs first came into being in the 1980s and over the last 30 years have evolved into a respected programme of work-related courses that can be taken in place of, or alongside, traditional A levels. There are more than 2,000 BTEC qualifications across 16 sectors, ranging from childcare and travel and tourism to computing and engineering. There are five levels of study: levels 1 and 2 are equivalent to a GCSE, level 3 is equivalent to A level and level 4 (HNC) and 5 (HND) equate to the first two years of an undergraduate degree. Further education colleges and some state and independent schools offer level 3 BTECs.

Part of the appeal of BTECs is the teaching style and methods of assessment – there is a larger onus on projects, practical work and coursework. The courses are divided into units which are marked ‘pass’, ‘merit’ or ‘distinction’. For some young people this is a better fit than GCSEs and A levels (which are now linear courses, with final exams after two years). However, BTECs are not an easier option; they are just different and workloads and requirements will be equally demanding.

BTEC qualifications attract UCAS points and are accepted by nearly all universities, including Russell Group institutions. Around a quarter of applicants to UK universities have one or more level 3 BTECs.

T levels

The new T level qualifications will be available from 2020. These two-year courses have been designed with employers to give post-GCSE students a technical alternative to A levels and help them to get a skilled job. They will provide a mix of technical knowledge and practical skills, an industry placement of at least 45 days in their chosen industry or occupation, relevant maths, English and digital skills and common workplace skills. To find out more, go to:

Higher apprenticeships

These are sought after and competition for limited places is tough, partly because they are open not just to school/college leavers but also to adults already in the workplace. They take between one and five years to complete and combine working with part-time study at college, university or with a training provider. Final assessment is made on the basis of both academic and practical competence. Higher apprenticeships are offered in a wide range of sectors, including agriculture, business, arts, media and publishing and engineering and manufacturing technologies. Those on higher apprenticeships are paid a wage and the cost of their training is co-funded by the government and the employer. Applicants will require a minimum of five GCSEs (including English language and maths) as well as level 3 or A level qualifications in relevant subjects. To find out more about higher apprenticeships, go to:

Degree apprenticeships

This relatively new programme of apprenticeships was set up by the government in 2015 and is being developed through partnerships between employers, professional bodies and universities. They are open to applicants over 18 with level 3 qualifications (A levels, IB, BTEC or equivalent) and lead to a full bachelor’s or master’s degree. Apprentices are employed throughout the programme, spending part of their time at university and the rest with their employer. They are paid an attractive salary and gain hands-on workplace experience, a degree and also, in most cases, continuing employment after three or four years. High profile companies such as Barclays, KPMG, Jaguar Land Rover and Boots are now running schemes and competition for places is fierce – we’ve heard of some first-year undergraduates jumping ship from degree courses to degree apprenticeships. You can understand why, with annual salaries for degree apprenticeships ranging from around £14K to upwards of £20K. To find out more go to:


Friday April 5th, 2019. 8:30am - 10:30am. The People's Palace, Queen Mary University of London, London, E1 4NS

Children’s book of the month

Each month the Good Schools Guide Newsletter team chooses a new book for children to enjoy

On the Origin of Species, retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva (Puffin Books, £12.99)

Age: 5+

Origin of the speciesOn the Origin of Species is one of the most enchanting picture books we’ve seen in a long time. It’s beautiful to look at, fascinating to read and is bound to get young children enthused about science and nature.

The book is the brainchild of molecular biologist and illustrator Sabina Radeva. Determined to bring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the younger generation, she created this gorgeous tome, complete with stylish illustrations and a simple, easy-to-understand text.

She then launched the book on Kickstarter and received nearly £50,000 in pledges, more than 25 times her original target. It attracted so much interest that Puffin Books snapped it up and it’s set to become a treasured classic in homes, libraries and schools around the world.

‘I’m passionate about two things – science and art,’ she says. ‘Darwin’s original On the Origin of Species is challenging to many people due to its length or the old-fashioned language. I’m a firm believer in the power of picture books to convey complex issues in accessible, engaging ways.’

Her book certainly does that. It’s full of fascinating details and will appeal to adults as well as children. Did you know, for instance, that there are now 340 breeds of dog but they’re all descended from one kind of wild wolf? Or that small differences in the colour and design of animals and plants can help them to live, survive and reproduce better?

Older children will enjoy the suggestions for further reading at the back of the book, the glossary of useful words and the explanation of concepts like DNA, genes, variation and mutations while younger siblings will like learning about the evolution of different animals and plants.

There’s no doubt that this book has been a labour of love. Even the endpapers, with their colourful drawings of butterflies, moths and beetles, are a work of art.

Going up, going down

Going up

Good manners. Debrett’s is famous for advising on etiquette and good manners. But as well as offering guidance on using the right cutlery at a formal dinner, it can teach us how to avoid tricky situations too. Debrett’s recently visited Roedean, the all-girls’ school near Brighton, and addressed conundrums such as talking politely to someone who has a different view to your own and extricating yourself from an uncomfortable conversation.

University applications on the up. The number of students applying to study at UK universities has risen for the first time in three years. The latest Ucas figures show that a total of 561,420 people have applied for places so far, including 63,690 students from outside the EU.

Talking ‘mockney’. Barnaby Lenon, former head of Harrow School and now chairman of the Independent Schools Council, says many public school pupils deliberately speak in slang or ‘mockney’ – because they reckon that ‘being posh these days is not a good thing’.

Going down

Turn off the TV. Doctors have issued the UK’s first ever guidance on children’s screen time. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommends that children should switch off the TV and computer screens at least an hour before bedtime.

No to teaching. A Leeds Beckett University survey of more than 275 teachers in their first year of teaching found only 43 per cent of them had definite plans to stay in the profession long term. Half said their job had caused them panic attacks or anxiety while others planned to quit as soon as possible to improve their wellbeing.

Cannabis linked to depression. Parents should be aware of the risks of teens using cannabis. A new study by the University of Oxford and McGill University in Canada reports that teenagers who use cannabis are at greater risk of depression in later life.

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