Keeping their options open – what you need to know

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Over the next couple of months young people in schools and colleges face some of their most important educational choices. But how have the 14-19 reforms enhanced the options available? And how can staff be best prepared to deal with questions that come their way?

Connexions adviser Maggie Cowan has been giving careers and education guidance to young people for more than 20 years.

The period between January and March, when students aged 14 and above traditionally decide what they want to do next, is one of her favourite times of year - because she gets a glimpse of the aspirations that students hold for the future.

“It’s a large part of my job to speak to young people about their hopes for work or university,” she says. “When a 16 year old comes to you with the seed of an idea, it can be incredibly rewarding to work with them and their parents to figure out the best pathway to take them towards that ultimate goal.” 

But Maggie has always felt that options available to 14-19 year olds could become even more flexible, so that every young person can find their preferred route.

“Some qualifications from previous years, such as GNVQs, didn’t provide the flexibility for young people to move onto university if they wanted to,” she says.

It’s for reasons such as this that the government has introduced reforms to 14-19 education over the past two years. Not all young people were being provided with suitable progression routes and some became disengaged from the education system, dropped out and underachieved. 

But now there is no shortage of options. Everyone has the opportunity to follow a style of learning that best suits their individual needs and enables them to fulfil their potential. 

In addition to new GCSEs and A levels, students can study for the Diploma at Foundation, Higher or
Advanced levels. Foundation Learning has also been introduced to offer vocational or subject learning for students working below level 2. 

Other changes include:

  • Functional skills qualifications – a central part of the Diploma, Foundation Learning, Apprenticeships and new GCSEs – being introduced to all schools and colleges nationally from September 2010. These will help young people to get the most out of education and training, and to become more independent and more employable as a result
  • The Extended Project – available to A level students and as part of the Advanced Diploma – allowing students to develop their research skills by studying a topic in depth
  • Personal, learning and thinking skills such as team work, time management, self management and presentation, embedded across the 14-19 curriculum
  • More Apprenticeships available for students looking to specialise in particular industries

Lesley Chadwick, 14-19 Curriculum Development Manager for Liverpool City Council, believes that the changes are very positive news.

“The 14-19 reforms mean we have the most exciting and comprehensive suite of options that I can remember,” she says. “Now every young person can find something that’s right for them – whatever their background, whatever their ability and whatever their ambitions.”

She cites the introduction of the Diploma – the largest of the reforms – as one way that the bank of options now available to young people has been enhanced:

“We’ve never had a qualification that fuses practical and theoretical achievement so well. The young people in the Liverpool area who are studying the Diploma get so much out of it because it takes them to places that they wouldn’t otherwise go, and puts them in situations that they wouldn’t otherwise be in.

“Recently, some of our students studying the Diploma in Information Technology had to present ideas for a website to a local employer, who sent them away twice to think about refinements that he wanted to make to the design.

“That’s real life – not everything is going to be perfect first time – but it just made the young people more ambitious and more determined to come up with the best possible end product.”

The options are there. But buy-in from teachers and tutors is the key if we’re to meet the challenge of equipping the nation’s ambitious young people with the skills they need for future success.

Importantly, the launch of the Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) strategy in October 2009 signalled additional support to help young people make the learning and work choices that are right for them as individuals. The strategy sets out a new vision to encourage students to aspire to fulfil their potential, and places schools and colleges, and teachers and tutors, at the heart of the process.

So it’s vital that staff fully understand the recent changes to 14-19 education.

“The 14-19 reforms have been a fantastic step forward, and during this options period I hope everyone will take the time to understand the different routes that are now available,” says Lesley.

Maggie Cowan shares this view. “What we have now is a range of choices that enables every young person to find a learning route that suits them – so the choice that all teachers need to make is to do a bit of homework on the 14-19 reforms ahead of options time.”

The 14-19 reforms: fast facts and useful links

The Diploma:

  • A two year programme that combines practical and theoretical achievement into one award to help bridge the academic-vocational divide.
  • Available at three levels – Foundation, Higher (both usually taken between the ages of 14 and 16) and the Advanced Diploma (which is a post-16 qualification that can be taken as a route into university)..
  • Young people can also choose from a range of other courses to study as part of their Diploma – including GCSEs, A levels and BTECs.

Foundation Learning:

  • Provides a clear route for young people working below level 2, and uses a tailored learning programme to prepare them for level 2 and beyond.
  • Is made up of a range of suitable qualifications that provide social and personal development as well as functional skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT.
  • Foundation Learning can have a positive impact on engagement, motivation and attainment of the students participating on the programme.

The Extended Project:

  • A one-off assignment undertaken either as a standalone qualification or as a compulsory part of the Advanced Diploma. Once achieved, the Extended Project is worth half an A level.
  • The focus of Extended Projects is chosen by students themselves, with approval by tutors. This can be an aspect of the subject they are studying, a topic they have a vested interest in, or an area they enjoy.
  • The main elements of the Extended Project are planning, research, the product or artefact itself that students produce (eg. an animated film, a performance, an artefact, a report of an investigation or a dissertation), evaluation and presentation

Functional skills:

  • Now part of the Diploma, Apprenticeships and Foundation Learning to ensure that everyone learns the essential components of English, maths and ICT to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life and work.
  • Functional skills will be taught to all secondary school pupils from September 2010.
  • Achievement in functional skills tests will be incentivised through the School Report Card.

GCSEs / A levels:

  • Functional skills incorporated into GCSEs in English, ICT and mathematics
  • Revised A levels place more emphasis on thinking and problem solving and are designed to be more challenging and stimulating to students to better prepare them for higher education and employment


  • Are now available to young people on a wider scale in a larger variety of subject areas

IAG strategy:

  • The government is improving the quality and accessibility of the information, advice and guidance (IAG) available, to prepare young people for a rapidly-changing jobs market, and help them to aspire to fulfil their potential.
  • The new IAG strategy (Quality, choice and aspiration, October 2009) places schools and colleges at the heart of delivering IAG; gives local authorities strategic responsibility for leading improvement at local level; promises to help parents help their children make the right decisions; commits to raising young people’s aspirations through wider choices and experiences of the world of work; and sets out plans deliver more interactive and accessible online IAG services

Further reading:
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See also:
Raising the participation age

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