Sophie Walters, 19, is a long way from her original plan of going to drama school. Like a growing number of school leavers, she’s decided higher education is too expensive and has instead opted for on-the-job training which will leave her debt-free and earning a decent wage after three years – and with a degree equivalent qualification to boot. “I thought: ‘why not?’” she says.
She’s on a scheme run by insurance company Be Wiser, who’ve run a bespoke Sure Start programme for A-level school leavers for two years.
Like all employers, they struggle to attract applicants, who can be a little sniffy about alternatives to university.
This year, though, as with many other schemes, applications are rising.
“I realised there’d be more chance of me getting good experience as well as recognised qualifications,” says Walters. She had to get the equivalent of three Bs at A-level to be accepted and is looking forward to a managerial career once she completes her insurance diploma over three years.
“I might start my own company.”
Sixth formers face a raft of opportunities with companies keen to train them up and replenish an ageing workforce. In fact, a variety of non- university training routes are offered by a range of employers from the public sector, the armed forces, financial services, the construction industry, and now in travel, retail and law.
Higher Apprenticeships, in particular, are gaining traction – though these aren’t an easy alternative to School leaver university. Launched in 2011, and embraced by employers such as PwC, Rolls-Royce and the Civil Service, they lead to degree equivalent qualifications, all the way to Masters-level.
They’re available in softer areas such as human resources, management consultancy and even social media, as well as the traditional areas of engineering. Many programmes bring employees to the same level as the graduate training programmes – but faster than if they’d gone to university, and without ever taking out a student loan.
Actually, says careers adviser Tracy Davis, school leavers – and their parents – are waking up to the need to consider all options. When parents come to see her at the Bournemouth & Poole College, tuition fees now feature highly in conversation. “Parents are asking whether there will be a job at the end of a degree to justify that amount of debt,” Davis says.
Some schools and colleges – particularly those who’ve formed relationships with employers – give good quality careers guidance, but many students still assume university is the only route.
“Students often see an apprentice - ship as something you do when you can’t get into university,” says Patrick Philpott, founder of OpenCareers.co.uk; a platform matching bright students with opportunities at top employers. “Companies say the big challenge is awareness. The education system doesn’t always recognise the value of apprenticeships, so students aren’t encouraged to pursue them,” he says.
When their daughter Anouska turned down university in favour of a PR Higher Apprenticeship at Salix Consulting, Maria and Jonathan Cope were sceptical at first. “We lacked knowledge of what other smart options were available,” says Maria. “But this blinkered approach doesn’t compare with the incredible opportunities out there. This apprenticeship has given her a sense of direction.”
Unlike Anouska Cope, Ryan Wood, 20, never wanted to go to university, so he joined EDF Energy’s apprenticeship scheme after A-levels and is now into his third year of training. “I knew a university-type of learning wouldn’t suit me,” he says. He spent his first two years at a Portsmouth- based apprenticeship training centre and is now attached to nuclear power station Heysham 1. He’s relished the training opportunities, which have included a tour of four European countries in five days. After four years, he’ll qualify as a mechanical technician. “I wanted to apply for this scheme after GCSEs, but discussed it with my parents and decided to do A- levels. I’m glad I waited: it was a good chance to mature and take advantage of the study.”
Often, trainees will end up fol - lowing identical training to those who join at graduate level. “We’ve designed our programme to be an alternative to university,” says Alana McCrosson, student recruitment manager at accountants and business advisers BDO, which eventually aims to hire roughly the same number of graduates and school leavers. After five years with the company, Higher apprentices can qualify as chartered accountants, while the graduate route, ending in an identical qualification, would take six years. “We want school leavers to have exactly the same opportunities as graduates,” she says. While it’s been a tough pro - gramme to publicise among schools, numbers of applicants are rising. This year, BDO is hiring just over 90 A- level school leavers – the number was just 13 when they began the scheme back in 2011.
Other leading employers are reporting similar rises. “Clients appreciate our school leavers,” says McCrosson, “as they are around for five years – they’re so switched on and capable.” With extra work experience under their belts, school leavers are often fast-tracked into management in their early 20s, she says.
Many schemes start hiring in September and school leaver applicants might find themselves at the same assessment days as graduates.
“School leavers regularly outperform graduates on assessment days,” says McCrosson.
At Visa Europe, where apprentices make up 3 per cent of employees, the company is seeing 50 applications for every vacancy on the Higher Apprenticeship scheme, which is now in its third year. Latest figures at National Grid show some 3,000 applications for around 60 places on its engineer training programme (ETP), which has run for six years and targets A- level students – though this is still well below the 8,000 who are chasing training after GCSEs. “It’s a great programme,” says Sharon Goymer, resourcing manager, development programmes at National Grid. The utility company is eager for young replacements for a workforce on the verge of retirement.
At professional services firm EY, applications for the school leaver pro - gramme have risen 20 per cent this year. The company expects to hire 100 school leavers this September and steadily increase numbers over the coming years.
Higher Apprenticeships and similar schemes will generally ask for the same A-level grades they require of graduates – sometimes around 280 or 300 Ucas points and GCSE A or B in English and maths. National Grid asks for two A-levels, one of those in maths, physics or engineering.
Employers says they look for the ever-critical interpersonal skills – the rest they will teach on the job. Starting salaries are pitched competitively, many hovering upwards of £17-18,000 with the likes of National Grid paying £23,500.
Naturally, over the five years of training, employees will spend blocks of time studying, often on qualifications that have been designed by the company. “We’ve designed our own foundation degree to suit National Grid,” says Goymer. “This isn’t something we’ve pulled off the shelf.
Our retention rates are excellent.”
National Grid’s programme gives school leavers a foundation degree in engineering – some choose to go through to Bachelors, even progress to Masters-level to become a chartered engineer.
Visa Europe, which offers a range of Higher Apprenticeships across technology and business, public relations, accounting and more, partners with education providers such as the Open University and professional training specialists such as private university BPP. “We recruit on behaviour as we believe we can train the skills required,” says James Lawrence, next-gen talent manager.
But are school leavers really ready to commit to a nine-to-five working day while their peers throw them - selves into the social whirl of the first year at university? Some are, some aren’t, says Davis.
Often, students from further education colleges who’ve perhaps worked alongside study are more prepared than A-level students from smaller sixth forms. Socially, it’s not all bad – larger companies work hard to help school leaver groups work and play together.
Fledgling apprentices often need a web of support – and companies provide various sympathetic ears, from mentors to “buddies” and managers.
“Often, students coming out of uni think work is a life sentence; they’ll never go out again,” says McCrosson. “But school leavers here form a tight group of friends they go to college and work with. It’s very social – they make the most of everything the firm has to offer.”