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Making choices post-16

Since 2014, young people have been required to stay in some sort of education or training until at least their 18th birthday. This can be either full-time education, a job or volunteering plus part-time study, an apprenticeship or traineeship.

A levels

Many 16-19 year olds take A levels; around two-thirds do at least one. A levels offer students a solid academic grounding in a subject, are internationally recognised and are required by many universities and professions. Students studying A levels usually take them in three or four subjects.

A typical concern for a young person is whether they’ll be able to cope academically with A levels. The best way to determine if they're the best route for your child is to talk to their teachers.

Many young people with special educational needs do very well at A level and make excellent progress in further academic study. Make sure your child’s college or school is aware of their needs and provides the right level of support, such as extra time during exams.

Another common concern for young people is which A levels they should take – they may ask questions such as ‘are they the right A levels for the job I’d like to do?’ And, ‘what if I change my mind later on and then don’t have the qualifications I need?’ But there’s a lot more flexibility than you might imagine. Students who aren't clear what they want to do later should take subjects they enjoy and keep doors open. It’s also always possible to take additional options later on - after all, these days many people completely retrain mid-career. 

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB is an alternative to A levels that has grown in popularity in the UK in recent years. It is mainly offered by independent schools but some state schools offer it too. It offers a broader education, as young people take six subjects, three at a standard level and three at a higher level. There are also three compulsory core elements to the IB - an extended essay, participation in an extracurricular activity and classes on the theory of knowledge. Some people regard the IB as more challenging than A levels; it suits all-rounders.

Vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications, such as a BTEC or diploma, provide a practical and creative approach to learning, less classroom-based than A levels. They often provide the opportunity for students to gain work experience and they're usually examined via assessments and coursework, with less emphasis on final exams.

Some people wrongly think that vocational study is only suitable for less able pupils. Vocational courses can be as stimulating and challenging as A levels, but with a stronger focus on practical application.

If your child is interested in going to university, you should check whether the vocational qualifications they're interested in will be recognised by their chosen university or course of study. This varies hugely. If in doubt, their school will be able to offer advice.

Apprenticeships and traineeships

An apprenticeship is a job that includes high-quality training, work experience and the achievement of a nationally recognised qualification. Apprenticeships usually last between one and four years and the best ones are highly sought-after. A minimum wage rate for apprentices was introduced in late 2010 but many employers pay more. There are different entry requirements depending on the apprenticeship and industry.

Most of the training will happen in the workplace, with some time at a local college or specialist training organisation (usually one day a week or one day a fortnight).

Traineeshipsare for those aged between 16 and 24 who are interested in an apprenticeship or other part-time job but need more skills. A traineeship can last from six weeks to six months and involves a work placement and skills training.

Making the best decision

Challenge assumptions based on gender and bust any myths based on stereotypes that may deter your child from doing something they’d like. Commonly held myths such as ‘girls and tech don’t mix’, ‘you’re either a science person or an arts person’,  ‘girls never reach the top in business’ or ‘girls are better at the arts’ are wrong and can limit options. Make sure girls are aware that these ideas are incorrect and that they should choose a future career or course based purely on what they want to do and enjoy, not on what others think. 

Support their choices but also question them. Ask why they want to do something, suggest alternatives or back-ups. Here are some ideas of questions you can ask:

  • ‘Do you have any specific ideas about what you’d like to do later on?’
  • ‘Which skills are you most keen to develop?’
  • ‘What subjects do you enjoy?’
  • ‘Should you consider something you haven’t done before?’
  • ‘How do you learn best?’
  • ‘Are these the right subjects for the university course you’re interested in?’ (The ‘Which?’ guide to choosing A levels for a degree course is a useful resource for deciding on A levels, as is the Russell Group guidance on post-16 selections.)


Article adapted from the Your Daughter’s Future guide

National Careers Service

Apprenticeships website