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What are your options if you don’t want to do 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 someone who is interested in academic subjects. However, for many students, these types of qualifications aren’t the best options.

You may 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 you may have decided you don’t want to pursue these academic subjects any further. You may already know what you want to do as a career and you may 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 your 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 will 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, but these three are the most widely known. For example, the government has just launched new courses called T-levels which follow on from GCSEs. A T-level is the equivalent of 3 A-levels. 

These qualifications should in no way be considered inferior to A-levels; they are a totally different kettle of fish. Industry standards, approved qualifications, robust assessments, equivalent to that of academic qualifications. 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

  • 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 enables students to start at the level which suits them. If you know nothing about a particular area or role, then you will start off at a lower level and move up as you 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. 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. 

BTECs

  • Students are predominantly based in their sixth form or college
  • The course includes hands-on work experience in the industry
  • Can provide access to university

Levels of BTEC

Different levels of BTEC are equivalent to different qualifications: some are equivalent to GCSEs, others A-levels. If you are going 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 your 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.

[https://www.suffolkone.ac.uk/prospective-students/choosing-right-course/]

How are BTECS taught and assessed?

BTECS are predominantly based around classroom learning. This means that you will spend most of your time at sixth form or college. Your course will include work placements where you will apply what you’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 are averaged 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. 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. 

Subjects

There are so many BTECs on offer – the possibilities are endless. One approach is to look at the sixth forms/colleges near you 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 they are likely to enjoy it.  

Typical areas include:

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. According to Pearson, the qualifying body of BTEC:

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 pursue your chosen area further then a BTEC can be a good route into university. Pearson states that:

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 to university. 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. 

The table below shows the UCAS/A-level equivalents to BTEC grades: 

The A-level grades and UCAS points equivalent to each BTEC grade. A* (56 points) is equivalent to a starred distinction, A (48 points) is equivalent to a distinction, C (32 points) is equivalent to a merit, and E (16 points) is equivalent to a pass.
[https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2017/02/the-equivalence-of-a-levels-and-btecs/]

But, if you want 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. It may not be as simple as having a BTEC, and now is a good time to find out what is needed so you can make it happen or decide on a different route.

The good schools guide says…

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.

So, if this is the route you want to take then it’s important to check the entry requirements of any university courses you have set their eyes on so they can see what kind of grades you will need to get there and if a BTEC alone will be enough. 

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, 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. 

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 will generally start off at a lower level in order to gain experience. 

NVQs are available at levels 1–5, while Level 2 and 3 NVQs are also available as part of an apprenticeship.

[https://www.reed.co.uk/career-advice/nvq-levels-what-you-need-to-know/]

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. 

Levels 4 and 5 are much higher qualifications and are the equivalent of degree level.

Subjects

You can do an NVQ in a range of different areas. According to the Good Schools Guide, the most popular NVQ subjects 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 have found an area or specific qualification which interests you, you should research places where you 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 your NVQ?  

It’s likely you will have gained your NVQ as part of their place of work. Being more skilled in your line of work will not only give you better job satisfaction but will also afford you more opportunities to progress in your career. This is because, with an NVQ to your name, an employer’s confidence in your ability may increase. You could be awarded more responsibility or even be promoted! Furthermore, if you decide to change companies, having a formal qualification which proves that you are skilled and competent will make it easier for you to find employment in a new company. 

If you complete your NVQ in a college and haven’t got a job yet then your new qualification will make you more attractive to employers and will hopefully make your 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:

However, like our advice for BTECs, it’s important that you research courses and entry requirements carefully if this is the route you want to take. You shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ring the admissions office, they will be more than happy to discuss what qualifications are needed for their courses.

Apprenticeships 

  • 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 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 your course. 


[https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/787717/Guide-to-Apprenticeships-260219-LR.pdf]

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 you will earn depends on your age, which part of the country you are in and which apprenticeship you are undertaking. 

Apprentices should work for a minimum of 30 hours a week and a maximum of 40. Time spent off the job at a college or in training is included in this time.

Subjects 

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:

  • You can contact the National Apprenticeship Helpdesk on 0800 015 0400 or by email: [email protected]
  • 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 they write is specific to the role you’re applying for: don’t just copy and paste!

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 might include:

  • Practical assessment
  • Interview
  • Project
  • Written and/or multiple-choice tests
  • Presentation

Some apprenticeships require an assessment at the end of study, this is called an end-point assessment (EPA). 

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?

If you are fanatical about bikes and cycling, you could find an apprenticeship as a bike mechanic. If you love working with young children, you could do 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/sectors. Pick a passion and work from there.

You may feel that going down a vocational route is a big gamble. Maybe the closest you’ve ever got to being an electrician is making a moisture detector in D&T in year 8. Or maybe you love doing nails and makeup but that’s a far cry from becoming a beautician. You have no idea if your interest will last out a 2-year course and eventual career. A good way for you to test out your passion is to try and get some work experience in the industry. For example, if you love styling hair, you should enquire at your local hairdressers to see if they would let you do some work experience.

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 decide 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 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? If so, 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 has 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 down the list based on factors which are important to you. These could be as simple as which option is closer to your home for an easy 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 the wide range of options available may make it seem like your future is uncertain, there’s one thing you can be sure of: with a plethora of options in a whole range of fields, each providing you with a qualification which will further accelerate your career path and give you the option to progress onto university if you wish, with just a little research you can look forward to fulfilment and success.

PMT Education is a non-profit education platform for students and teachers. We create free tools and resources to help GCSE and A-Level students pass their exams and navigate their path through education.

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