Clearing 2015: The reality of finding a dream career

University is not the only option if A-level results aren't up to scratch. Stephen Hoare explains the choices available

Click to follow

A-level results day may be a cue for celebration or commiseration. It is a golden opportunity to reassess your plans and to reflect on the options open to you. Once accepted as an automatic rite of passage, going to university may be losing some of its appeal especially given rising fees and the difficulty of initiating a career after graduation.

No one understands the situation better than Anne Constantine, principal and chief executive of Cambridge Regional College (CRC). Offering Btec and apprenticeships CRC there's no shortage of vocational choices for young people. "Schools often push their students into A-levels - a default pathway to university. But we find parents are increasingly getting wise to apprenticeships, which can now go up to degree level and beyond. Young people can earn and learn without getting into debt," she says.

Catering for around 2,800 full-time students mainly aged 16-18, CRC has two post-results advice days on the 21 and 22 August. Students and their parents are invited to attend. There is plenty of choice on offer. Students who failed to get the grades first time round might be invited to top up their Ucas points with a new vocational Btec qualification. Mature students who have been out of full-time education for several years might be invited to enrol on a one year Access to HE course which aims to prepare them for study at university.

Employer-sponsored apprenticeships allow students to divide their time between college workplace learning. These can offer a route to professional qualifications: higher national certificate or diploma courses (HNCs and HNDs) can allow students to transfer to a full-time university degree or a foundation degree part way through the programme. In CRC's case, the progression is to the college's higher education partner, Anglia Ruskin University. "We offer foundation degrees in the built environment which can lead to a career as an architectural technician and in early years for students wanting to work in child care," says Constantine.

Topping up a qualification to gain extra Ucas points can put the individual in a stronger position if they choose to reapply to university. And a resit need not mean delaying a year as many universities offer January or February starts and a smaller cohort, in addition to September's entry.

Some students use this extra time as a gap year during which they can build confidence and maturity through travel, internships or volunteering. Volunteering Matters is a national charity leading UK volunteering. Every year the charity recruits around 160,000 volunteers. " We train young people and help them build the skills and confidence they need to progress to higher education or employment," says communications manager Amanda Francis.

Employers' training schemes or school leaver programmes are gaining popularity. Degrees or professional qualifications are usually built into the programme and employers will often cover or contribute to the cost of completing the qualification. Young people should apply direct to employers who offer the scheme (see

Popular in finance and accountancy sectors, school leaver programmes aim to attract good A-level students. Big-name employers who offer such programmes include the National Audit Office, Grant Thornton, EY, Deloitte and National Grid. Competitive pay is offered: some school leavers can earn over £22,000 a year. EY, for example, recruits around 150 school leavers annually for training programmes in London and major cities. It is represented at sixth form talks and careers fairs. Once recruited, the school leaver has exactly the same career opportunities as a graduate.

Competition for places is fierce and entry requirements can be high. Kayleigh Anderson, 19, left Rochester Grammar School a year ago with A-levels in maths, PE and biology and is now studying for her professional ACA (chartered accountancy) qualifications at multidisciplinary business consultancy EY. "I enrolled because I was interested in a career in accountancy, maths and finance. I applied online and after taking a series of psychometric and numeracy tests, I was invited to an interview and then to an assessment centre where they look at how you communicate with others in a team," she says. Anderson has a contract to work with EY for five years by which time she will be fully qualified. "A lot of my friends at uni wished they'd known about school leaver programmes," Anderson says.

Case study: 'You can improve your grades and self-confidence'

Unexpectedly poor A/S level results prompted Newmarket student Jonny Knights, 19, to put off applying to university and rethink his plans. He reinvented himself by leaving his school sixth form and, on the advice of a friend, applied to study a business qualification at Cambridge Regional College (CRC).

"Instead of the predicted As and Bs at school, I was getting Es mainly because of exam nerves. I knew I wouldn't have enough points to apply to university so decided to study a level 3 Btec in business studies," says Knights. In switching institutions, Knights swapped a sense of failure for one of achievement. CRC exceeded all of his expectations. The atmosphere was quieter and more mature. Lectures were supplemented with online resources and powerpoints to encourage self study.

"It seemed more like university and I was treated as an adult. You could email tutors with questions before class," says Knights. The Btec also had the advantage of including a business internship.

Having achieved a distinction, Knights now has enough Ucas points to apply to university. "Taking a year off to improve your grades can improve your qualifications portfolio and boost your self-confidence. I'm applying to read business at Anglia Ruskin University for September 2016."