Apprenticeships: A realistic alternative to university

If you’ve got a child in year 12, you’re probably both thinking about the next stage about now.

Let’s be honest, having a child in education is always about the next stage – if your child is in year 5 or 6, it’s all about secondary school. Then from year 9 onwards it’s non-stop – options, GCSEs, A Levels and leaving school…

Every choice is tinged with the big question of careers. Are they choosing the right GCSEs to allow them to take the right A Levels (or BTECs or T Levels) to get them onto the right university course or into the right career?

There is a huge culture in this country of the next stage being university. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Apprenticeships are a very realistic alternative. I should know, my son is coming to end of a higher level apprenticeship after getting good A Levels.

I first heard about apprenticeships as an alternative to university way back when my son was in year 7 or 8. And I knew it was right for him even then. He’s never been academic, but he is intelligent. His intelligence is more about the real world – he learns by doing things and needs to understand the point of what he’s doing. For him, things like English literature, history or French have no point because he can’t use them in day to day life.

(I’d just like to say that I never pushed him into an apprenticeship. It was entirely his own choice.)

Do you have someone in your life like that?

Even if you don’t, there are some very sound reasons why an apprenticeship might be a better choice than university.

In case you’re wondering, apprenticeships aren’t all about plumbing, construction and hairdressing. There are apprenticeships in a very wide range of areas, including business and computing.

After A Levels, a young person can go onto a Level 4 apprenticeship (equivalent to an HNC) or even straight onto a degree (Level 6) apprenticeship.

The usual path is to do a Level 4 and, if they want to, to keep working towards a Level 6. For a degree apprenticeship, a local college may work in partnership with a university to provide it.

My son is getting towards the end of his Level 4 apprenticeship and the plan is for him to keep working towards a degree.

An apprenticeship is 80% on the job learning and 20% working in college or with a training provider. Usually, this will be away from the workplace, but my son’s company arranges for a tutor to go into the office, rather than for the apprentices to go to college. He has also done a week-long intensive course with an exam at the end of it. He still has to do his dissertation, which should be pretty easy as it’s all based on things he really knows and understands from the workplace.

In total, his degree might take him five or six years from leaving school, compared to three or four for people who go straight to university. But when he is finished, not only will he have a degree, he will also have five or six years of valuable work experience, a good salary and no debt.

Apprenticeship, Apprentice, Office worker, Young man

Compare this to graduates who are struggling to get a job, often falling into part-time work in industries like hospitality to try to make ends meet, and are saddled with huge debt. When and if they finally get the job they want, they are at the bottom of the ladder, on a low salary and usually lacking in the basic skills employers actually want in the workplace.

I’m not saying don’t consider university. It is the right choice for many young people and for some (eg those doing medicine) it is the only option. There are advantages of university in terms of a social life and becoming independent.

But there are also huge advantages of choosing an apprenticeship as an alternative. If you’ve never considered it, I would definitely recommend you take the time to read up on it.

Apprenticeships aren’t an ‘easy’ option. They are just different. In fact, compared to university places, there are far few higher (Level 4 and over) apprenticeships available, so they are highly competitive.

The government’s website is a good place to start, as is your local college. Keep an eye on local job ads too, which sometimes advertise apprentice positions. 

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. So glad to see a blog post like this Sarah. My year 7 daughter has already started talking about Uni. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea as I’m not sure it’s the right option for her and the debt issue is incredibly far reaching. Graduates often end up in poorly paid jobs precisely because they are graduates. Apprenticeships, HNDs, TechBacs even T-Levels are the way forward and some of the T-Levels that will be introduced in 2022 and 2023 look amazing. As for the independent living thing, that actually terrifies me! I think it’s frightening that we unleash 18 year olds on the world, stack them in high density housing and then encourage them to drink heavily. Anyway, best of luck to your son and so glad he is exploring this route. Over time I think it will become more and more common. He’s a trailblazer!

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    • Thanks very much! I do think apprenticeships will become more common and my son’s former school (a girls’ grammar school) is now talking to students about them, which they didn’t do when my son was there.
      It’s crazy that your year 7 daughter is already talking about university. My year 10 daughter has only started talking about it very recently. She has seen that there is an alternative, so won’t rush into a decision. She is also not keen at all on moving out, so if she does go, she may choose to study very close to home.
      My younger son wants to do medicine, so he will definitely be going to university! Three of his four unis are within an hour of home, so although he will live away, he can come home easily. Also as an athlete he has no intention of drinking heavily!

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  2. My youngest is in year 9 and there has been talk about what she will be doing when she has finished school and apprenticeships have been mentioned. She is a more of a hands on learner and definitely not a sit down and write learner so an apprenticeship could work for her. She is looking at something to do with engineering and there are plenty of apprenticeships locally.

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    • It’s great that she is thinking about apprenticeships already and that there are options locally. That’s the sort of learner my son is too! He loves getting involved in things. He’s actually a really clear thinker, he just doesn’t like getting things down on paper.

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  3. I have been speaking to my oldest about this and more so after reading your post. I am not sure if it’s the right thing for him, but it is good to have options. And I like how you can learn and work too. xxx

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    • Thank you, it’s never too early to start thinking about these things. Being able to earn while learning makes such a huge difference and stops young people getting into huge debt. We knew it was the right thing for my eldest, but it isn’t the right thing for everyone, including my own younger son who wants to do medicine. x

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  4. Thank you thank you for this. My children are now well beyond this stage but looking back, I feel apprenticeships should have been taken far more seriously as a good, valued course to a career in an area they were genuinely interested in. The idea that everyone must go to university has had its day and I hope in future the apprenticeship route is allowed to take its proper place as an equally valid way to go. All the best to your son – I’m sure he’ll do well on it!

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    • Thanks very much, he is certainly doing well so far! He’s only got three or four months left as an apprentice, then hopefully he will get a job where he is.
      Apprenticeships are only just starting to be seen as an option after A Levels, but I think they are definitely growing in popularity as people start to see the value in not getting into debt, as well as learning valuable workplace skills.

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  5. I loved the talk that the school sign posted us to this week. It made so much sense that they can do a degree through the company and not have the debt (as the company pay) as well as getting valuable experience during the time they are doing it. Like you say if you don’t have to go to uni to get the degree then apart from the social side it makes sense to do the apprenticeship.

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    • I didn’t see that the school had done that, that’s a really positive thing to hear. My eldest’s school was desperately trying to push him towards university or at least apply as an alternative, but he knew it wasn’t right for him.

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  6. Fab article, though my dd went to Uni I am a strong advocate of apprenticeships, my Hub did one when City & Guilds was a thing straight from school, he has never looked back. Schools have a vested interest in keeping people on at 16 and channeling into Uni but its good to hear some schools are being more open with their advice at last and considering what is best for each individual, the more traditional academic route isn’t for everyone!

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    • Thanks very much. I’m glad it worked out so well for your husband. My younger son will definitely go to uni as he wants to do medicine, so I can see both sides. It’s definitely about what is best for the individual.
      Sadly my son’s school didn’t encourage him at all to do the apprenticeship. They were really trying to push him towards university.

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  7. This is such a great post and you make a really valid point. There is an assumption that university is the best option but it often isn’t with so many uni students racking up thousands of pounds worth of debt and then not being able to get a job at the end of their courses. I think apprenticeships are brilliant for so many young people, as you say, they can often get a similar level of education without all of the debt.

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    • Thanks very much. I really wish more people knew about them and more schools encouraged them. They aren’t for everyone, but they do have so many advantages compared to university.

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