Learning… Or time to start earning?

There's more to life after A-levels than uni - could an apprenticeship, a gap year or even a full-time job be right for you?

Year 13 could prove to be your lucky year. You may have emerged from school with your A-levels to set you up for the next step in life. But what's it to be?

If you've got the right grades, there are advantages in going down the university degree route despite the rise in tuition fees – better job prospects and higher pay for a start, according to Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK. "Going to university can also be one of the most rewarding and stimulating experiences of your life. You meet new people from all over the world, encounter new ideas, have your views and opinions challenged and above all, have a really good time," says Dandridge.

But maybe you feel that going away to university is not for you, at least not at this stage? Your reasons may vary – from worries about money to feeling emotionally unprepared to leave home and friends. The good news is that, nowadays, there are countless alternatives to a traditional full-time degree to help you make the transition into a successful working life.

To make it easier for you to sift through the possibilities, here's the menu of main options after A-levels…

Going on to university

It may be that you have a place at university already lined up. But if you haven't got the A-level grades you'd hoped for and no firm offers have been forthcoming, all is far from lost.

If you hurry, you can enter Ucas Clearing which will give you a chance to apply for a course in your chosen subject at other universities and colleges which will accept lower grades.

Equally, if you find you have done better than expected, you can enrol for the Ucas Adjustment process. This will allow you to apply to a university that has a higher entry requirement than your original choices.

Clearing can also provide you with the opportunity to gain a university place this year even if you haven't already applied, but you'll have to move fast. The Ucas website has all the details on how to apply and all the relevant deadlines.

If you're unable to find a place on a course at a university that fits your aspirations, don't despair. There are plenty of good alternatives to the traditional degree route available.

You might want to think about a foundation degree – this is the equivalent of the first two years of an honours degree, but are specifically designed with a particular area of work in mind. Subjects you can study range from accounting to zoology, and you'll most likely find yourself learning in the workplace as well as the classroom. Foundation degrees can be taken as a standalone qualification, or you might have the option of transferring to the final year of an honours degree if you've done well enough.

The two-year diploma of higher education is yet another option, covering subjects such as nursing and social work. A diploma may also lead to direct entry into the third year of a BA degree course.

Look out too for private higher education provider BPP, who offer an alternative to traditional universities with career-focused degrees in subjects including law, accounting, banking and finance for £5,000 a year. They have around 1,000 places available across 10 regional centres.


Taking time out

If you feel you're not ready to carry on studying or to start the search for a full-time job, you may decide to take time out to try different things and do some travelling. There are endless possibilities for making constructive use of self-financed years out both at home and abroad.

Even if you have been offered a university place for this year, you might to defer your degree course for 12 months. If this is something you're interested in, check with the university in question as soon as possible.

Volunteering during your gap year could give you a chance to learn new skills and get some free training. On the way, you could learn a lot about yourself and may also make a difference to people's lives. CSV need full-time volunteers for a range of needs including working in a homeless hostel or helping restore a famous cathedral (pictured below).

You may decide to travel overseas. With well thought out plans, you could combine your journey with volunteering to get some valuable work experience that can actually improve your CV.

If you're considering volunteering to work abroad through one of the many organisations offering such opportunities, try and speak to a former volunteer to check them out first. Do your research carefully so as to make the most of your time away from education or paid work. You could even consider an intensive foreign language course. Naturally, the more productive you make this period the better.


Starting full-time work

More companies are now waking up to the advantages of hiring young people who have chosen not to go to university but show real promise. School leaver recruitment programmes now exist in sectors as varied as engineering, catering and retail. If you have a strong interest in business and finance, you could look at applying to professional services companies such as KPMG which sees its school leavers programme as offering a compelling alternative to a traditional university route, with a chance to gain an internationally recognised professional accounting qualification. Similarly, by joining programmes in the worlds of insurance and banking, you'll have a chance to train for a professional qualification which should launch your career in those areas.

Studying on the job

You may not be interested in carrying on with full-time education, but how about learning while starting a real job without the need to move away from home? Your local further education college will offer work-based qualifications ranging from accounting and finance to practical construction.

Fees will be considerably lower than university and you'll get a fully recognised qualification in the form of an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) or similar which measures the skills you have built up in a particular industry or sector. If you reach Level 3 of the NVQ you could go on to a foundation degree or a HND (Higher National Diploma), a well-regarded work-related qualification which will give you the skills and knowledge you need to do a specific job.

Over 400 institutions provide HND courses which can be either full-time over two years or part-time, which are spread out over a longer period. With a HND qualification, you may find that you're able to drop into a graduate degree later.

You could also think about a distance learning degree through the Open University which will allow you to study in your own time at home while earning. There are around 540 courses available which can count towards 122 qualifications. You could start with an introductory course and build up towards a university-level qualification within three years. Although you work mostly on your own, you'll get full tutor support. And if your household income is low, you may be able to study at the OU for less than £100 a year.

If you are worried about debt after graduating, you could think about applying for a sponsored degree run by organisations as varied as Morrisons and the Merchant Navy. These offer a good way of covering your university costs while providing you with a reasonable wage. Be prepared, however, for the fact that the sponsor may expect you to work for them for up to two years after graduating – as always, research thoroughly before committing your future.

Apprenticeships are by far the most recognised route for gaining practical skills and increasing the chances of landing a job in an area that you may interest you. They cover much more than the manual trades which famously offer such opportunities, with categories ranging from the arts to dental nursing. Apprenticeships can last from one to four years; you'll earn a basic wage and be required to attend college one day a week or over a concentrated period of time. For more details, you can either approach employers directly or go through your local further education college, which will have links with local business and industry.



If you're not keen on higher education, or you're looking to take a year out, applying for an internship may be a smart move. According to Andy Goodwin, Careers Manager at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, the double blow of the recession coupled with increases in tuition fees putting people off university has meant that a lot of employers are offering internships as an excellent way of gaining an insight into potential candidates. For the school leaver, internships are a means of getting a foot in the door, seeing an industry from the inside and making themselves known to potential employers. The internship experience can also help you decide whether this is an area you want to work in and confirm that any qualification you are aiming for will be relevant. Some internships pay, some don't. They're likely to be full-time and may cover any period ranging from four weeks to a full year. If you can't get a full-blown internship, don't despair – there might still be work experience opportunities available.


Already graduated?

Here are some ideas to help you plan your next step:

* In a tight graduate job market, look at doing work experience or apply for a longer internship. Either route may result in an offer of a full-time job.

* Consider taking a gap year if you didn't take one pre-university. This could include working and volunteering in the UK or overseas.

* Graduate training schemes are highly competitive so make sure you sharpen up your CV with plenty of extracurricular activities to help you stand out.

* Don't give up if you have no response or rejections. Always ask for feedback.

* Add to your portfolio of skills. You could brush up one of the languages you did at GCSE for example. Lifelong learning is the way of the future.



Andrew Shanahan's Guide to Not Going to University, out tomorrow (Pearson, £12.99)