Apprenticeships or A Levels?



A question for you - what are you going to do after your GCSEs?

Naturally, most students progress onto A-levels, BTEC Diplomas or T-levels after their exams, but other options are available to you. More and more of your peers are choosing to do apprenticeships after they finish their GCSE studies.

In recent years, the government has invested lots of money and resources in increasing young people’s apprenticeship opportunities. There are now thousands of schemes available in a crazy range of sectors.

It’s not an easy decision, but to help you choose the best path, we’re going to do the hard work for you and compare apprenticeships and A-levels.



What are apprenticeships?

Designed for 16-24-year-olds, apprenticeships combine real work with academic learning.

They’re an opportunity to start a career immediately after finishing your GCSEs.

An apprenticeship is an actual job. It’s full-time, but you’ll work towards qualifications alongside your role at a local college or training centre.

You also get paid! Currently, the minimum wage for an apprentice is £4.30 per hour. The average salary for an Intermediate Apprenticeship in 2020 was £16,662, according to reviews on RateMyApprenticeship.co.uk.

There are four different tiers of apprenticeship available. These are Intermediate (level 2), Advanced (level 3), Higher (level 4/5) and Degree (level 6/7).

Once you have completed your GCSEs, you’ll be eligible for intermediate and advanced level schemes, depending on your results.

Beginning a career might seem like something that should happen in your twenties, but it’s possible to get on the career ladder and start earning a great salary when you’re sixteen!


Young apprentices at professional services firm EY.


What are A-levels?

You’ve likely sat through many assemblies about them or have friends and siblings who have done them, so you’re probably very familiar with them.

However, it’s hard to know exactly what your day-to-day life will be like until you’re doing them, so let’s break it down to give you a better idea.

A-levels are qualifications for 16 to 18-year-olds and are the natural next step after GCSEs. A-level students remain in school or college for two more years studying three or four main subjects.

In Scotland, they’re referred to as Scottish Highers, but the qualifications are all equivalent.

Previously, exams and coursework were split over two years. In year 12, you would complete 50% of your course, whether through exams or coursework, with the other 50% finished in year 13.

This system has changed. Now, A-level students do all of their exams and coursework at the end of year 13. In year 12, you’ll start working towards your final exams and probably have a few mock exams to help you prepare.

As you’ll only be studying three or four subjects, you’ll have free time outside of your classes. How you spend this time is really dependent on your school. You might be given free periods to study or take a trip to the local park, or you may stay in school for the entire week and have allotted study periods.

Most students do A-levels because they want to go to university, but as you’re about to discover, it’s not the only route to a degree!



Apprenticeships vs A levels: What qualifications will you get?

Apprenticeships

Intermediate (level 2)

An intermediate apprenticeship is good if you didn’t do as well in your GCSEs as you hoped. Most employers require you to have only two or more GCSEs (A*-C), including English and Maths.

The types of qualifications you could get after completing an Intermediate Apprenticeship are:

  • An NVQ level 2
  • Knowledge-based qualification (such as a BTEC Diploma and Certificate)
  •  Passing your apprenticeship is equivalent to 5 GCSE passes

These qualifications will be different for each apprenticeship, as each NVQ and knowledge-based qualification will be specific to the sector and job role you’re working in.

Once you have completed an intermediate apprenticeship, you’re able to progress up the apprenticeship ladder so you can continue your training and gain more qualifications.

Advanced (level 3)

Becoming an advanced apprentice is just like going to sixth form or college. You'll gain qualifications equivalent to A-levels and be able to progress onto further apprenticeships:

  • An NVQ level 3
  • A Knowledge-based qualification (such as a BTEC)
  • Equivalent to 2 A levels

These qualifications will be different for each apprenticeship, as each NVQ and knowledge-based qualification will be specific to the sector and job role you’re working in.

After finishing an advanced apprenticeship, you’ll be eligible for a higher apprenticeship or even a degree apprenticeship. This means you can get a degree while working as an apprentice!

If you stay in school...

If you stay in school after your GCSEs, you’ll work towards A-level qualifications. Typically, you’ll study four subjects in the first year and continue with three in the second.

You’re graded at A* to E and receive UCAS points depending on your grade for each subject. The UCAS point calculator is the easiest way of working out how many points you could acquire.

Once you're in Year 13 or your second year at college, it’s decision time: Will you do an apprenticeship or go to university?


Apprenticeships vs A levels: The benefits

Apprenticeships

  • Combination of practical, on-the-job learning and classroom learning
  • It's a real job, meaning you're starting a career at 16
  • Learning from experienced professionals
  • Earn a wage
  • Opportunity to work your way up the apprenticeship ladder, even up to degree level (and you don’t have to pay any uni fees)

A-levels

  • Similar to GCSEs in style, so the transition from year 11 to year 12 is smooth
  • Most traditional path for going to university
  • You can study the GCSE subjects that you enjoyed and did well in at a more advanced level 
  • A-levels are widely respected, and are always included in the entry requirements for university and jobs. 

Do your research and go with what works for you

If you want to start working straight away, an apprenticeship is going to be your best friend. It’s an opportunity to learn through practical work, get real experience and qualifications all at the same time.

On the other hand, studying towards A-levels are probably the best option if you want to stay in school and prefer classroom learning.

Remember, you can look at other sixth form colleges, you don’t have to stay in the same school. Another sixth form college might offer subjects that your school doesn’t teach. Plus, a change of scenery is always a bonus.

If you want to go to university and get a degree, the traditional route is GCSEs, A-levels or BTEC Diploma, then university. However, keep in mind that you can still get a degree if you take the apprenticeship path.

Some intermediate and advanced apprentices progress to the top of the apprenticeship ladder: level 7 schemes end with a master’s degree!

If you decide to go for your A-levels but don’t particularly fancy uni, the opportunity to do an apprenticeship hasn’t passed. If you want to start earning right out of Sixth Form or College, like an old friend - the apprenticeship will always be there.