Monday 19 August 2019

The right path may be to earn while you learn

There are many routes to a successful career, so look around, writes Maria Walshe, of SOLAS, the further education and training authority

Maria Walshe, of SOLAS
Maria Walshe, of SOLAS

Maria Walshe

The national obsession with third level education sends some students down the wrong path.

Far too often, the only show in town is securing a place in a third level college, as opposed to taking a genuine look at all the available education and training options and trying to decide which one works best for the individual student.

In recent years, there has been a welcome lift in discussion about the hugely diverse range of non-third level education choices and a growing awareness that there are many routes to successful careers. People learn in different ways and students can reap huge benefits from different learning environments.

We need to equip parents and students with as much information as possible about the range of programmes out there. The Further Education and Training (FET) sector offers a different learning experience such as smaller class sizes on Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses or learning on-the-job through apprenticeships and traineeships.

Feeder Schools: Click here for the full breakdown of where Leaving Cert pupils have gone to college over the past 10 years

As of now, you can't access listings of the schools that FET students or apprentices have previously attended. You can get data about the 'feeder' schools for higher education, so why not for further education, is a question newspapers regularly ask.

This is something that SOLAS is looking at creating. However, the big question is, if this data is to be published, how will it be used?

There is a demand for league tables whether we like it or not. We live in a competitive world and parents and students, while knowing the tables are imperfect, will look at them to get an insight into how particular schools of interest to them compare with others in terms of college entry. On publication of these tables, many point out their limitations. As Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation, commented, league tables "are a ridiculous metric that forces everyone down one path, regardless of their aptitude or interest".

On the one hand, not having sufficient information on PLCs, apprenticeships and traineeships can mean that these programmes are simply not in the mix in terms of post-secondary school options for many. The absence of such 'feeder school' data might re-enforce the view for some that entering higher education in Ireland is the only progression worth considering after the Leaving Cert. On the other hand, if this information were readily available how would it influence the decisions of parents and students? If their local town has two second level schools, one with high levels of progression to third level and the other school with a good progression rate to Further Education and Training programmes which would be the school of choice?

Consideration should also be given to the fact that many of those starting Further Education and Training programmes are not coming directly from school. Currently the average starting age for an apprenticeship is 21.

This is often as a result of students enrolling in a particular college course, realising it is not for them and dropping out to pursue an apprenticeship. Time after time, when speaking to apprentices who have taken this route, they talk about how they wished they had gone straight into the apprenticeship in the first place.

It is difficult and stressful for students - and their parents - to make the decision to drop out of a much-celebrated college place. It takes huge courage to do this but you can't help but wonder if the widely acknowledged national obsession with third level education had sent them down this path.

Apprenticeships have been a hot topic in recent years. There has been a welcome increase in registrations with more than 15,000 apprentices currently in the system. The range of options is increasing, too. There are 43 different types of apprenticeship available, 18 of which are new and more are on the way.

As well as the long-standing apprenticeships in areas such as construction, engineering, motor and electrical, there are now apprenticeships in areas such as insurance, accounting, international financial services, original equipment engineering, auctioneering and property services and bio pharma. For a full list see

The aim is to have more than 70 types of apprenticeships available by 2020 leading to qualifications from NFQ (National Framework of Qualifications) Levels 6-9, or equivalent. Apprentices are employed by a SOLAS-approved employer for the duration of the programme which is generally between two to four years. The key benefit of an apprenticeship is the opportunity to earn while you learn and getting into employment earlier can mean there is lots of potential to progress.

The Further Education and Training Sector has been making great strides in improving programmes and expanding the range available. There are more than 30,000 places available on Post Leaving Cert courses. These one or two-year programmes offer awards at Levels 5 and 6 of the National Framework of Qualifications. PLC courses are not accessed via the Central Applications Office. Interested students can apply directly to the colleges. To search for PLC courses see .

These programmes can equip students with the necessary skills for the workplace. Following a review of PLC provision last year further work is under way to make them even more responsive to changing labour market conditions.

In addition, many students who take up PLCs decide to continue studies upon completion and these courses can act as a stepping stone to third level study. Many universities, colleges and institutes of technology have programmes in place to recognise further education and training qualifications as a route to entry.

If a student completes a PLC programme with good results, they have a great chance of securing a reserved place on a third level course. A database of such linked programmes is available on

A traineeship gives participants the opportunity to develop cutting-edge skills and knowledge on the job, making them more employable. Traineeships also enable employers to access a pipeline of talent and learners. The training content and occupational standards for traineeships are developed in consultation with employers, trade unions, regulatory bodies and interest groups. There are more than 50 traineeship programmes available around the country across a range of industry areas including aviation, IT, animation, hospitality and digital marketing.

This number will increase with the development of more traineeships across a range of industries and sectors. All traineeships lead to an award at NFQ Levels 4-6, or equivalent and are six to 20 months in duration.

Maria Walshe is Communications Manager for SOLAS

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