Changes to post-16 options

If you can’t find what you’re after, please get in touch.


The education system in the UK has always been susceptible to changes; a change in government will almost always lead to a tinkering of the education system if not wholesale reform. People outside of education (well, actually sometimes within education too) often find it difficult to keep up with these changes. It is especially difficult for parents who want to continue to support their son or daughter with their education journey, in a system that may bear little resemblance to the one they experienced themselves.

A survey by the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in March 2019 found that nearly a quarter of parents do not feel comfortable giving their children practical advice on post-16 options. No matter how supportive a parent is, unless they happen to work in education, the current post-16 landscape is likely to be appear very different to when they were the same age. Even those who studied at university will find that there have been changes to the application process and to student finance for example. According to a YouGov survey carried out by Pearson, 46% of parents felt that their child has a more difficult decision to make about post-16 education than they did (TES March 2019). The same survey found that 37% of parents didn’t know whether a BTEC qualification would ensure entry to a university course (TES March 2019).

These guides are designed to help you support your son or daughter to make the difficult decisions needed to succeed. Checklists are provided at the end of each guide to provide an easy guide to the key questions associated with each option.

What has changed over the last five years?

Changes to the minimum school leaving age

Perhaps the most fundamental reform has been the change to the minimum school leaving age in England. Since 2015, 16 to 18-year olds must do one of the following:

  1. stay in full-time education, at school or college or other educational institution (defined as at least 540 hours a year, around 18 hours per week) or
  2. start an apprenticeship, traineeship or supported internship or
  3. spend 20 hours or more per week working or volunteering whilst in part-time education (part-time education or training should be at least 280 hours per year).

The change was made to improve the prospects for young people, many of which were leaving education completely at the age of 16. By making it compulsory to stay in education or training for longer it is hoped young people will develop a greater range of skills and reduce their chances of unemployment.


GCSE changes

Since 2017 GCSEs have been re-written in a bid to make them more challenging for students. As well as an increase in content covered by each subject, there has been a significant reduction in coursework and all exams are now taken at the end of two years.

Perhaps the most visible change to GCSEs is that of the grading system. Grading is now numerical, ranging from 9 to 1 instead of A* to G. The Government’s stated aim in doing this is to improve employers’ confidence in the qualifications. There are also more grades at the higher end of the scale which helps to recognise the very highest achievers. Under the new system a grade 4 is considered a ‘standard pass’ (roughly equivalent to a low C in the past), grade 5 seen as a ‘strong pass’ with a grade 9 being the equivalent of an A*.


Maths and English

In response to concerns expressed by employers about the numeracy and literacy skills of school leavers, the Government has made it mandatory that all students without a grade 4/C in English and/or maths continue their study in that subject until they reach the required standard.

More information on this can be found in the GCSE Maths and English section of this guide.


A levels

A Levels have also undergone significant change since 2015. AS levels have been decoupled from A levels and have become stand-alone qualifications. It is no longer necessary to take an AS exam in the first year of A level study and indeed, many institutions are moving away from AS exams completely.

As with GCSEs, all awarding bodies have re-written their specifications for each subject, and coursework has been significantly reduced.

Further information on these changes can be found in the A levels section of this guide.


A greater emphasis on vocational education and training

In order to provide students with the work-ready skills they need to enter employment, the Government has placed greater value on vocational education and training. Vocational education combines practical training in a specific job area with related study.

A very common route into employment now for young people is to undertake an apprenticeship. This enables young people to ‘earn while they learn’, bringing home a salary of at least £3.90 per hour if under 19, and at least minimum wage if aged over 19. Apprentices usually spend one day a week at a local education institution studying for a qualification related to their work. An apprenticeship will take from 1 to 5 years to complete depending on their level and will very often result in a permanent job offer at the end. The areas in which an apprenticeship can be undertaken are vast, ranging from hairdressing to accountancy to engineering.

There are multiple levels available, including a Higher Apprenticeship which enables participants to achieve a Level 4 qualification such as a HND or foundation degree.

Further information on apprenticeships can be found in the relevant section of this guide.

Traineeships are designed for young people who want to progress onto an apprenticeship but don’t have the necessary skills yet. A traineeship lasts up to 6 months and includes work preparation, English and maths support and an unpaid work experience placement.

Visit the traineeship section of this guide for further information.

Supported Internships are for young people who have learning difficulties or learning disabilities. To qualify for this programme a person needs to have a Statement of Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), a Learning Difficulty Assessment or an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Supported internships last for at least 6 months, are unpaid and designed to help the student move into paid employment at the end of the programme.

More information can be found in the Supported Internships section of this guide.

T-Levels are a brand new technical alternative to A Levels being introduced from September 2020. Lasting two years they have been created in collaboration with employers to meet the needs of industry and prepare students for work. A completed Level 3 T- Level will be the equivalent of three A levels.

There will be 15 different pathways ranging from accountancy to education, and human resources to construction. Students will spend 80% of their time in the classroom (as opposed to 20% on an apprenticeship) and 20% on an industry placement of at least 45 days.

The new T-Level qualification will be phased in over a few years, with only 54 institutions offering it in 2020.

More information can be found in the Technical Qualifications section of this guide.


Work experience and non-qualification activity

You may have started to notice a theme –recent educational reform has been focused on better preparing young people for the workplace, with an emphasis on students gaining meaningful work experience.

The government expects all providers of 16-19 education to provide all students with work experience opportunities – even if they are studying academic A levels.

Alongside this, every post-16 student is expected to receive an element of ‘Non-qualification activity’ as part of their study programme – things such as tutorials, development of social skills, enrichment and activities to develop their character.

What are the different pathways?

There are different levels of qualifications available to students. An individual’s pathway through these levels will differ according to ability, skills and career and education goals.

The traditional academic route usually takes a student from GCSEs to A levels and onto Degree level or higher. This isn’t the only route to university however as the diagram below shows. The introduction of new vocational and technical progression routes are also illustrated.

A useful rule of thumb when considering progression is:

  • Entry and Level 1 are pre-GCSE standard
  • Level 2 is indicative of year 10 and 11 study at secondary school
  • Levels 4 to 5 are typical of post-16 education levels
  • Level 6 is degree level and
  • Levels 7 and 8 refer to post-graduate education

A parent’s checklist

Does my son or daughter know exactly what kind of job or career they want? Have a look at the sections of this guide on vocational and technical qualifications in addition to the apprenticeship section.

Have they achieved at least a grade C/4 in maths and English? If they haven’t, they will need to continue to study for a GCSE grade 4 in that subject. See the section on GCSE English and maths

Do they want/need to earn a wage whilst continuing their study? Have a look at the apprenticeship section to find out more about earning whilst learning

Do they need a change from school? Whilst it is compulsory to stay in education and training until the age of 18, it doesn’t have to be at school. Check out the courses on offer at your local college and read the apprenticeships section of this guide.

Do they need continued help with study skills before embarking on a certificated course? Have a read of the supported internship section of this guide

Is my son or daughter good at essay writing and exams? If they are, check out the A level section of this guide. Alternatively a vocational course may be more suitable.

Does my son or daughter plan on going to university? Check out the A levels and vocational qualifications sections of this guide for information on Level 3 courses.

What level of study does their chosen career require? Have a browse through our Indigo resources to get an idea of what the entry requirements are for different jobs and careers

Are they ready for the world of work? Have a read of the technical qualifications and apprenticeships sections of this guide for information on programmes that combine work and study.

Does my son or daughter have special education needs or disability? Have a look at the supported internship section of this guide.

For any more information, please contact us using this form.