Katherine Donnelly: 'With colleges at saturation point, apprenticeships attractive again'
With almost 47,000 CAO acceptances this year, most of them from the Leaving Cert class of 2018, school-leaver college entry rates are pretty much at saturation level.
Many of those who did not go straight to higher education started on a post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course and will use that as a stepping stone to a degree programme.
So, a concerted drive to encourage students to aim for higher education has paid off, although much work still has to be done if under-represented groups, such as those from areas of severe socio-economic disadvantage, are to take their fair share of college places.
It is true that, with some limited exceptions, it is no longer enough to rely on the Leaving Cert as a platform for a rewarding career and fulfilling life.
A big surge in school-to-college progression rates became evident after austerity set in, mainly because there was little else for school-leavers to do.
The recession killed off jobs in sectors such as construction and retail, to which many school-leavers had traditionally resorted, and also led to a collapse in the apprenticeships career option.
At the same time, advances in technology sparked exhortations from Government and employers to get that degree because of the need for ever-higher levels of knowledge and skills in modern workplaces.
An increase in second-level enrolments, coupled with the academic attainment levels evident in Leaving Cert results, will ensure a continued flow of high-achieving students to college. The question now being asked is can some of those be encouraged to look beyond the CAO and consider new opportunities arising in the apprenticeship world?
The end of the recession brought a steady recovery in traditional apprenticeships. There was also the promise of a raft of new ones, including in white-collar areas. They offer different levels of qualification, with some at degree level.
Some 17 new apprenticeships have launched since 2016 - many more are coming on stream next year - and there were hopes that almost 1,000 of the positions would be filled by the end of 2018, but it stands at a little over half of that.
Employers, in some sectors at least, have been slow to embrace the concept because of the costs involved, but there is also concern that such is the fixation with the CAO and higher education, that many students, parents, and perhaps guidance counsellors, are blind to the opportunities.
The part-study/part-work approach of apprenticeships suits the learning styles of many students better than full-time college and, far from facing college fees of €3,000 a year, newly recruited apprentices are starting on €18,00-€24,000.
Post-school progression tables, such as those published today, will be all the richer if they can show significant numbers pursuing career paths, such as apprenticeships.