Page last updated at 23:28 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 00:28 UK

What if you don't make the grade?

GCSE paper
Exam performance can lead a student down one path or another

GCSE results day is an anxious time for everyone involved. But for those who haven't got those all important five good GCSEs - it can be terrifying.

The first thing careers adviser Nick Hynes says to worried teenagers calling the Ucas exams results helpline is: "Don't panic".

"The second thing is to say that there are always more options available than you assume."

Traditionally, only pupils gaining five GCSEs grade A*-C have been able to go on to do A-levels and tread that well-worn path to a university place.

This watershed of five good GCSEs is the Level 2 achievement that features in government statistics.

"It's a bed rock and it certainly underpins everything that you would consider, but there are ways round it," explains Maggie Scott, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

She says it's not always as "cut and dried" as it may seem, that children who do not make the grade can still get to university, but schools do tend to have a more rigid set of entrance requirements for their sixth forms.

"Further education colleges have a different approach which would be to look at the student in the round," she adds.

'Tried and tested'

Any student at any school can go to a local college and ask for a one-to-one advice session, she explains.

"It may be that they are still able to do some A-levels after-all."

One way to avoid re-takes and delays or dropping off the A-level treadmill can be to take a functional skills qualification.

These stand-alone qualifications are ideal for candidates who have failed to get one of their core GCSEs but have done quite well otherwise.

"It's a qualification which gives you your English, maths or IT but in a way that is designed to make it more applicable.

"It wouldn't replace a full GCSE but it does demonstrate that the student might be good enough to go on and do an A-level course," says Ms Scott.

These can be done alongside A-levels instead of an extra AS level.

However, no college or school wants candidates to attempt qualifications they are not suited for, so sometimes other options can be just as good and can still lead to university.

BTEC Nationals can be a useful next step qualification for someone who has a good idea which career they want to go into, says Ms Scott.

If someone is disillusioned with the traditional academic way of learning it might be a question of doing a diploma
Nick Hynes
Careers adviser, Ucas exams helpline

"The BTEC national will either offer the option of going into a job or going on to Higher education.

"It's a tried and tested route for those who have missed out."

Students may also now have an option of selecting an advanced Diploma.

"These are working at the same level as A-levels but there is much more flexibility about them and it may be something new to consider," says Ms Scott.

Although they may not be universally available for several years, there should be some availability in most areas, says Mr Hynes.

Diplomas combine academic and practical learning and also feature work experience.

"If someone is disillusioned with the traditional academic way of learning it might be a question of doing a Diploma. It's very different from staying put in a classroom," says Mr Hynes.

He adds: "There are lots of choices available, but every choice has an implication, so you are strongly advised to discuss them thoroughly with an independent careers adviser."

For Ms Scott the secret of success is all about motivation.

"What we are trying to do is to avoid kids dropping out and becoming not in education, employment or training, and to try to keep people from feeling they have failed."

The Ucas exams results helpline number is 0808 100 8000

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