School leavers’ options: vocational training vs. academic study

A look at the advantages of vocational training compared to those of academic study.

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Many school leavers (along with their parents) expect to follow the academic route through education: GCSEs followed by A-levels and onto university. However, it could be argued that students stand a better chance at finding employment via vocational training, especially as more and more university graduates enter the job market, all competing for the same jobs.

It’s also worth noting that through Degree Apprenticeships it is now possible to gain structured vocational training alongside an academic degree as well as a salary, so the idea that highly academic study and vocational training are mutually exclusive needs to be revisited.

A-levels at school are a great option for those that want to keep their options open and continue in the standard classroom setting, and those who know they want (or need, for their chosen career) to head on to university. However, vocational further education courses at the same level (Level 3) are great for those who want a more hands-on approach – if you know what industry you want to go into (for example, working in childcare, or art and design) then a BTEC could be better for your career progression than A-levels, combining practical learning with subject and theory content. 

These more vocational courses also help you figure out what specific role you want to pursue in your chosen industry, unlike A-levels which are more academic and theoretical.

Further along, academic degrees also offer great benefits: the latest Office of National Statistics report comparing graduates to non-graduates found that graduates were more likely to be employed than those who left education with qualifications of a lower standard, and shown that graduate starting salaries at the UK’s leading graduate employers is, on average, £29,000.

However, none of this is guaranteed simply by taking a degree: in 2015 it was revealed that a third of working graduates had taken jobs as cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers six months after leaving university. Over 60,000 students were in "non-professional" roles, working in areas such as administration and secretarial, skilled trades, service and caring industries and sales and customer service. The new data also showed that almost 16,730 graduates were out of work six months after leaving university.

There is also a financial risk involved in taking a degree: most full-time students need a tuition fee loan, which covers the full cost of the tuition fee. Depending on where and what is being studied, this total can vary, but a typical student on a three-year course outside of London will to graduate with around £35,000 - £40,000 of student loan. This loan accrues interest; in England, for example this is 5.5%. After graduation, yearly repayments are set at 9% of whatever is earned above £21,000, regardless of the total loan amount.

Vocational training on the other hand, does not come with the same costs attached to a degree.  In many cases vocational training is fully paid, depending on the programme, and even when fees are applicable there are loans and funds available, at nowhere near the amounts of university, which is famously expensive.

Often vocational training takes part in the workplace, arming students with the ability to apply new knowledge to real-life situations straight away, as well as learning interpersonal skills through working in a team with colleagues. Vocational training is also designed to meet the specific needs of employers and job sectors. This means that students develop the skills and knowledge that employers want – increasing their employability and likelihood of finding a job after completing their studies. This also helps people decide whether a particular job or job sector is actually right for them.

Vocational courses can be assessed in a variety of ways, rather than the more traditional essay and exam method favoured by academic courses like A-levels and degrees, this can be advantageous to people who prefer to be assessed differently and demonstrate their skills in other ways.

The options for vocational study are much more varied than in the past: they are no longer just for people who want to pursue careers in construction, plumbing and hairdressing, for example, aspiring graphic designers, IT specialists and music producers are just as likely to find a course that will help them towards their dream job.