Leaving Cert students need to remember university is not the only path to success, Andrew Brownlee

Leaving Cert students need to remember university is not the only path to success, Andrew Brownlee

As the Leaving Certificate begins to wind down, many exhausted school-leavers (and their exhausted parents) are no doubt looking forward to a well-earned break from the studies and stress.

With the big exams behind them, students will now have some time to take a breath and reflect on their next steps – and may now be considering putting in for a change of mind on the CAO before the July 1 deadline, or even thinking about different routes to their dream career.

While sometimes the conversation for school-leavers is geared around one track, there are many different ways for young people to get where they want to go. For one, Further Education and Training (FET) and apprenticeships provide students with a wealth of alternative paths to reach their potential.

Many FET courses and apprenticeships remain open for applications throughout the year, giving learners a diverse and broad range of subjects, more flexibility and, ultimately, time for reflection when faced with important decisions.

Emphasis on vocational skills puts FET and apprenticeships in the lead in terms of addressing critical skill gaps in the economy, preparing learners for direct entry into in-demand occupations that are emerging and expanding in the economy or that recruiters are currently struggling to fill, especially as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

A few clicks on will reveal all manner of options to explore, from tourism, sound design, nursing studies, film and TV production and engineering technology to cyber security and software development.

Solas and Education and Training Boards (ETBs) around Ireland are driving significant change, growing and diversifying opportunities for learners. The opening of CAO 2022 was a big milestone for our sector, with links included for the first time that give students the option to explore 65 apprenticeships and more than 650 FET courses, including Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses via the CAO portal.

This important step reinforced the parity between further and higher education – and not only is FET a smart choice in its own right, but it’s a pathway to degree courses. With PLCs usually running for one year, awarding Level 5 or 6 qualifications on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), many benefit from using that year as a means to explore a subject before committing fully to a four-year course.

There is evidence to suggest FET graduates are less likely to drop out of third-level, and gain a huge amount from the extra year – developing skills in research, presentations, writing and reference. Often, FET graduates go on to outperform peers in third-level exams.

FET is also available in every county, meaning learners not yet ready to move from home can still progress in their chosen field after school. With 16 ETBs around the country, as well as other providers, plus online provision through the Solas eCollege, FET courses are a massively accessible choice.

Alongside Level 5 and 6 FET courses, apprenticeships offer the chance to earn and learn, as well as giving clear links to employment in sought-after trades such as plumbing and electrical, as well as newer post-2016 apprenticeships in the likes of biopharma, sales and ICT.

In recent years, the apprenticeship programme has seen significant expansion.

This new range of programmes now complements the traditional craft apprenticeships, providing a diverse offering that trains students for difficult-to-fill roles – electricians, scaffolders, carpenters, chefs, software developers, cyber-security workers, HGV drivers, supply chain roles and manufacturing engineers.

Running between two and four years in duration, all national apprenticeships lead to a qualification on the NFQ from Level 5 up to 10 (that’s PhD level) as well as invaluable on-the-job professional experience with a great employer.

With more than 8,400 employers approved to train apprentices, ranging in size from micro-businesses to multi-nationals, learners can apply to start throughout the year.

It is important we get the message across to students that not only is there life beyond the Leaving Certificate, but that their future is what they make it.

Gone are the days when the results of these exams were the be-all and end-all – there are many different ways for students to get where they want to be in 2022.

This is not only about Solas, ETBs or policy change. It’s about social change. It’s important the conversation around kitchen tables and in classrooms evolves to encourage students to play to their strengths and explore their aptitudes.

Andrew Brownlee is chief executive at Solas, the Further Education & Training Authority


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