What next? The big post-GCSE decision...

Whether you opt to stay in education or get a job, there's a wealth of opportunities out there, says Russ Thorne
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The Independent Online

Anyone who has made it through their GCSEs may never want to look full-time study in the eye ever again. But as well as A-levels, further education comes in many forms. It can include courses with a focus on work-based learning – and there's always the option of actually starting work, too.

First, reflect on your exams. If they haven't gone as planned, you still have options. You can go through the Enquire About Results (Ear) process to make sure your paper was marked properly, or resit some units/subjects. Resits might take place at your own school or at a further eduction or independent college. Subjects, timetables and fees (where appropriate) vary; start by speaking to teachers and advisers.

Once you've digested your results, there are many routes open to you. Many students go on to take A-levels but other qualifications such as advanced apprenticeships and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) can also secure degree course places if university is your goal.

You might take A-levels at your current school or a sixth form college. The process is split over two years and students take up to four AS levels first, then "upgrade" them to full A-levels in the final year, with the option of dropping one subject at this stage. Subjects include English, maths and sciences, and it's worth thinking about your choices carefully as they'll determine what you can study at university. "You must choose subjects you enjoy and are suited to, and ensure the combination leaves you with three strong subjects for the end of Year 12." says Mark Woodward, head of careers at Bablake School in Coventry. "Don't take subjects purely as a means to an end."

If you'd like to gain a qualification that contains a work-based element, consider an advanced diploma. These can lead to employment or higher education; there are 14 diploma courses offered throughout the UK. Subjects include construction and the built environment, hospitality and engineering. All can be studied alongside A-levels.

There are several other options that could help you develop practical skills and prepare you for work. You can choose NVQs in a range of areas such as retail, hair and beauty or engineering. Courses are modular (so there are no exams) and can be studied at different levels; once you've completed a course you might go into employment or on to higher education. An even more hands-on option is an apprenticeship (apprenticeships.org.uk), which combines study with work-based training.

Over 200 apprenticeships ranging from accountancy to electric vehicle engineering are designed by colleges and employers nationwide. They're paid, too: the average weekly wage is £170. "Apprenticeships provide huge benefits to young people and businesses," says Simon Waugh, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service. "They give employers access to a pool of talent that can improve productivity and bring young people a step closer to their dream career."

If you already have a job in mind, it's not compulsory to gain any further qualifications after GCSEs. Some students prefer to focus on starting their careers. You can search your local Job Centre, sign up to employment websites or apply directly to employers. Sites such as Monster.co.uk are very helpful.

Regardless of the path you choose, communication is vital. Discuss options with friends, family, teachers or careers advisers – they can help you chose subjects and write a CV or application. The Young People section of direct.gov.uk also has plenty of useful links.

Whatever your results have been, and no matter what you plan to do next, life after GCSEs is full of possibilities, says Woodward; you can enjoy it and allow yourself a moment to catch your breath. "Step back a day and remember how much you have already achieved," he says. "You're not a different person because of a sheet of paper with your results. Don't panic!"