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Post-16 pathways: stop telling us which way to walk!


Reading time: 2 minutes. Relevant course: SSAT Aspirations Show 2018


Sophie Winter, ex-grammar school post-16 student, now an associate at a Big Four firm and a charity worker, recalls her experience of sixth-form options

Sixth form was rather a peculiar two years for me. The main highlight was teaching myself King Lear and at the other extreme was being nagged like a five year-old to ‘complete the personal statement’ and ‘only go to this university…’

But there is a bigger lesson that some of us sixth-form students learn, something more than any UCAS form/essay/exam/mock can compete with.

The options as I saw them

On the weeks from June building up to 17 August 2017, I had cold feet about what the next step would be in my life. The options as I saw them were:

  1. take a ‘gap yah’ and work in Parliament for a year and then apply to do PPE at Oxford
  2. achieve my minimum grades, start a new life at Edinburgh University and become involved with Scottish politics, or
  3. if 2 doesn’t work then do an apprenticeship – god-knows-where and in what?

Every sixth-form student knows (or thinks they know) what they are capable of, if not the direction they want to lead their life. Something has always compelled me towards politics and humanitarian work. I wasn’t familiar with the apprenticeship route: every assembly and sixth-form talk had the words ‘UCAS’, ‘university’ and ‘grades’ or ‘medicine and STEM’. the mind-numbing use of those words again and again repulsed me from my school’s mantra of ‘any university is better than none’. I didn’t want to be a doctor, nor was I fully committed to investing in debts which would be accumulated from my early 20s. University, simply, was not for me. And I don’t regret it.

When results day arrived, I was in Newcastle delivering a workshop to looked-after children about Parliament with my co-worker. I didn’t get my AAA or AAB, so that was LSE, York and Leeds off the list, But I had already secured two job offers from Big 4 firms, one job offer from Parliament and was in my first month of working for a charity. It was clear to me that I had commitments which were greater than university. My post-16 path became a lot more fluid yet clearer – follow your efforts, and courage!

Following a non-university route

My heart had been set on PPE at Oxford, join Oxford Union and then go the party-politics route. But since that was out I decided to become the person I truly wanted to be and not give any Russell Group university the satisfaction of having me (!). I wanted to reach out to more vulnerable individuals, do more good for society with my volunteering work as well as develop another skill set which would link in with politics. This became to be advisory work for a Big 4 firm while studying the ACA qualification for accountancy, finance and business.

I wasn’t highly academic nor good at getting A*s. What I have is determination and perseverance and that seemed to give me the same opportunities as the highly academic individual, if not more.

I don’t think post-16 is a matter of what destination you arrive at, so much as having the chance to aim for the destination you choose. So on behalf of my peers as well as the 17-year-old who feels frustrated, alone and misunderstood by their teachers, I say: ‘take the path you want or face a life of knowing that you did not follow your heart because of one small-minded person!’

How to engage with students about post-16 pathways

To teachers, heads of learning, senior leaders of sixth forms I say: ‘stop fuelling stigmas from the education system to your students!’ There are other ways you can engage with your post-16 students which would be much more appreciated, such as:

    • Being university and apprenticeship neutral in assemblies, discussions and meetings with students. Not everyone is up for university and the implication that they should be singles out students when they hear UCAS propaganda.
    • Having one-to-one support for students applying for apprenticeships, not just for UCAS (if there is one thing I’ve learnt, the application processes for apprenticeships are a lot harder and more rigorous than for UCAS).
    • Finally, be mindful of what the student chooses in the end.
Want to give young people in your school the chance to feel they have control over their own futures through exploring their potential future pathways? Register your interest in attending the SSAT Aspirations Show 2018 

Read more on the SSAT blog: It’s time to take apprenticeships seriously


 Sophie Winter

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