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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 August 2007, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
GCSEs 'not the end of the line'
Alasdair Craig
Alasdair left school with two GCSEs
When that little brown envelope containing GCSE grades drops through the letter box, it can signal "School's Out Forever" for many teenagers.

But it does not have to mean it's the end of the line for their education and personal development.

They may never want to sit in an exam room or be faced with tough questions in class again - but there are plenty of ways they can continue their learning.

Those that do not achieve the minimum set of qualifications - five good GCSEs or the vocational equivalent - tend to miss out on 4,000 a year in future earnings, the Learning and Skills Council says.

Although more young people are doing well each year, almost half of 16-year-olds in England do not meet this mark.

Schools are great at making interesting things boring
Alasdair Craig

Alasdair Craig, now 23, suffers severely from dyslexia and was advised at his specialist school to expect only cleaning and washing up as a job.

And with careers advice like that it is hardly surprising that he "didn't really see the point of school".

"Schools are great at making interesting things boring," he says.

He left school at 16 with two GCSEs and after doing a few low-skilled jobs accepted an apprenticeship, training to be a diamond setter.

It takes up to 10 years to train a setter to the highest level, but after two years of training by a skilled setter, Alasdair showed enough competence to reach a commercial standard.

While still an apprentice, he has become a skilled craftsman at Cellini's in Cambridge, and has never looked back.

'Don't panic'

And there has been another knock-on effect - the growth in Alasdair's confidence. He now grapples with challenging texts like Dante's Divine Comedy.

Results day can be an especially worrying experience for youngsters like Alasdair who haven't done particularly well.

"It's stressful because at the moment they look at that bit of paper and if they haven't got what they wanted it's 'What shall I do?' It's panic," says Faith Patterson, centre community manager at young people's advice service Connexions in Croydon.

What's needed is impartial advice from someone who isn't involved, she says.

"People who are too close, like parents, are not always the best because they will be trying to analyse what went wrong.

"What people need to remember is there is always something that they can do - it's never the end of the world."

'Vocation, vocation'

Youngsters can get free, impartial advice from the advisers in their local government-funded Connexions centre.

Many colleges will still take those youngsters who haven't got the grades required - so it's always worth getting in contact with them, she says.

And from this year a place has to be offered to every young person completing Year 11 under a new scheme known as the September Guarantee.

As Alasdair has shown, joining the world of work doesn't have to mean the end of learning.

Apprenticeships can be the ideal opportunity for people who want to earn some cash and gain valuable skills at the same time.

Director of Apprenticeships at the Learning and Skills Council Stephen Gardner said: "Apprentices benefit from hands-on training, a salary and excellent prospects for their future.

"More people are choosing apprenticeships as their route to success and higher education."

Those young people who stay in learning post 16 are likely to earn more
Julia Dowd
Learning and Skills Council

It may surprise some parents that just 46% of 16-year-olds in England go on to do A-levels at school or college.

That leaves more than half doing something else.

An estimated 1.5 million teenagers were engaged on vocational courses last year, according to the qualifications body City and Guilds.

And increasingly ministers and employers are seeing these courses as the way to keep more young people switched on and engaged in their future prospects.

This is part of the reason it is introducing, in 2008, the new specialised diplomas which combine academic and practical elements in one qualification.

But there are already a plethora of vocational qualifications which can get students into well-paid jobs.

City and Guilds managing director Dick Winterton says: "It's no longer the case that if you don't go down the academic route or go on to do A-levels, that you cannot be a success.

"You can become a billionaire with the vocational route just as easily as you can with the academic route.

"For those youngsters who cannot wait to get out of the classroom - and get their feet into a proper job - the vocational side is ideal."

But there are also 'entry to employment schemes' which help youngsters polish up their basic skills as well as personal development schemes such as those run by the Princes Trust.

Director of young people's learning at the LSC Julia Dowd said: "GCSEs can often seem to young people like the end of their learning.

"But we know that those young people who stay in learning post-16 are likely to earn more, be more employable and ultimately more successful than their peers who drop out or go straight into full-time work without training opportunities."

Young people wanting advice about their post GCSE options can call Connexions on 080 800 13 2 19.

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