A parent's guide to post-16 qualifications

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The introduction of T-levels means the number of post-16 qualifications on offer to students is growing even further. For parents looking to support their children in their next steps, the choice can be overwhelming.

On this page, we help parents understand the three main qualifications on offer to students so you can provide better guidance for your child.

'A guide to post-16 qualifications for parents'

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A-levels

In England and Wales, A-levels are probably the most well-known post-16 option for students who have just completed their GCSEs. The A-level is a two-year course (when studied full time) split into two halves. The first half is called AS, which is a standalone qualification. At 16, students usually choose four AS subjects, then pick three to continue to a full A-level. The second year is known as the “A2 year”.

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A-levels are examined at the end of the two-year
course

Students may take AS exams in all four subjects at the end of their first year. In the subjects they choose to continue in, these first-year exams won’t be counted towards their A-level. A-levels are examined in one set of exams at the end of the second year. Some students take more or fewer than three A-levels.

In Scotland, students take SQA Scottish highers instead of A-levels. These courses usually take one year – the fifth year of secondary school in Scotland – but can be taken over two years. Students usually take four to five subjects, and can choose to extend their knowledge by taking advanced highers in their sixth year if they want to.

Both A-levels and Scottish highers provide UCAS points for university.

T-levels

T-levels are a new two-year qualification currently being introduced to provide post-16 students with a more practical, hands-on and vocational alternative to A-levels. They are like a half-way house between A-levels and apprenticeships.

T-levels focus on providing students with technical and practical skills for the workplace. However, the majority of students' time – about 80% – is spent in the classroom studying. Like A-levels, T-levels lead to UCAS points which can be taken into account in higher-education applications. However, instead of selecting a number of subjects, as with A-levels, students undertake a single T-level programme.

T-levels include an industry placement lasting 315 hours. As well as providing a route into the workplace or higher education, students can also continue on to a higher apprenticeship. T-levels are being gradually introduced over a number of years. Three courses were introduced in 2020 and a further seven are due to be introduced in September 2021, with the remaining 15 coming over the following two years.

Advanced apprenticeships

Apprentice with equipment
An advanced apprenticeships is a two-year level 3
qualification equivalent to two A-levels

An advanced apprenticeships is a two-year level 3 qualification equivalent to two A-levels. Like all apprenticeships, they provide training in a paid workplace setting, with time out of work to study towards a qualification or a number of qualifications. These qualifications could include a BTEC and/or one or more NVQs.

Prospective apprentices usually need five GCSEs at grade 4+ to qualify for an advanced apprenticeship although if your child doesn’t meet this requirement it is sometimes possible to work towards GCSEs or functional skills while completing the apprenticeship.

Apprentices are paid a minimum of the apprenticeship wage, which as of April 2021 is £4.30 per hour for first-year apprentices aged 19 or under. In the second year of their apprenticeship, apprentices aged 18 or over will earn £6.56 or more.

Which option should my child choose?

  • A-levels are the most academic option. They provide exclusively theoretical content focused around academic subjects across the curriculum, from maths and physics to English and history, sociology and geography. These are ideal for students who have already decided they want to go to university, which for many fields of work (e.g. teaching, medicine) is still a requirement.
  • T-levels offer a half-way house between A-levels and an apprenticeship. Because they provide UCAS points, students have the option of going on to university afterwards, although it is important to check whether the universities they are considering accept UCAS points gained through T-levels for entry. Students will also be well-equipped to pursue an apprenticeship or vocational qualification once they have completed their T-level.
  • Advanced apprenticeships are ideal for young people who want to go into a particular line of work straight from school, while also gaining professionally relevant qualifications. Advanced apprenticeships do not carry UCAS points and therefore do not directly help students with university applications. However, students can use an advanced apprenticeship to progress to a higher or degree apprenticeship, which may include a foundation degree or degree qualification.

For more guidance on this topic, take a look at our introduction to qualification levels.

Images: Lead image by Jonathon84 via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0

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