With conventional pathways of gap year and/or university altered by the pandemic, what about other options? We look at some CV-enhancing possibilities

Student choices for young people aged 18 and up may have seemed a bit limited of late. In fact, all school students have been short-changed by the pandemic. While there has been much focus on younger age groups, in some respects it has been even harder for those about to move on through the traditional rites of passage – that mind-expanding gap year or well-lit path into the pleasurable whirlwind of university study and social life.

This, of course, is complicated by the question of finances, since the past 18 months have made some of us question whether university offers ‘bang for buck’. Some students have decided to defer, while others about to embark on A levels are considering if this will be enough to get them where they want to go – especially since graduate jobs are not as easy to find (or as financially secure), as they used to be, and the burden of student debt is high.

Challenges are also opportunities and we’ve considered some alternative options for 16+ and 18+ students that can provide new skills (or top up your CV), bring fresh career options – and deliver cultural exchange and adventure.

Student choices  – alternative pathways at 18+
Student choices at 18+ include online learning – a great way to top up grades or add new knowledge to increase study and career options

Online learning

At one time online schools were largely the preserve of UK students living abroad, elite athletes or young actors and musicians. But with so much of 2020 and 2021 schooling delivered remotely, many more students have discovered that this is a style of learning that works for them. Rapid evolution of technology and major investment from key education players are helping online move mainstream, making this a definite option for young people who want a different route.

Pearson Online Academy UK has been designed to be flexible and its combination of sophisticated tech and long-established education expertise make it a good option for both GCSE and A levels. Courses prepare students for Pearson Edexcel International exams, which take place at dedicated test centres in the UK and worldwide. While the majority of enrolment takes place for students aged 14-18, there is the option for students who are slightly older to enrol. Teaching and learning are personalised – just like admissions – so Pearson Online Academy will consider applicants on a case-by-case basis.

There’s plenty of flexibility. For instance, students taking (or about to embark on) A levels can study an extra subject via Pearson Online Academy. This is useful for those who want to be stretched, to take a subject not offered by their school or keep options open with an extra qualification. Similarly, the 18+ student who has decided on a change of direction and wants an additional ‘top up’ GCSE or A level to smooth the path to the next level of study can choose Pearson to get that qualification.

Students who are fully enrolled at Pearson for GCSE or A level study benefit from lots of extras – for instance, a Success Coach for fortnightly one-to-one coaching sessions and small group workshops and guidance on university preparation and careers planning. Fees are very competitive for independent schooling (from £5,950 full-time per academic year, excluding exam fees). While a single A level or GCSE doesn’t provide all the immersive extras of full time (with fees adjusted accordingly), there is still personalised approach and you’ll have a dedicated admissions advisor on hand to provide one-to-one guidance and help you find the right path. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

Harrow School Online also offers a route for students looking for an alternative to traditional ‘physical’ school, and with the bonus of British qualifications gained from an independent with a worldwide reputation. The online school’s first cohort joined in 2020 and its academic programme is specialist, with A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Economics and Spanish. There’s also the opportunity to take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). For full-time students, classes and added value include a ‘super-curriculum’ programme of electives, plus academic competitions, guest lectures and additional academic study options. In other words, this is an academic programme that includes lots of mind-expanding and CV-enhancing stuff.

“Gaining qualifications via online teaching is, by default, a way to stand out from the crowd. For one thing, it shows ‘gumption’ to plot this alternative route”

Full-time students are expected to commit at least 25 hours a week to study – but many will do a lot more as the programme is designed to foster individual study skills and a love of learning. The typical timetable blends fixed timetabled lessons (6-10 pupils typically in a class) with flexible self-study, homework, electives and extracurricular. Harrow School Online pupils have houses – just like pupils attending the school – so the social and enrichment elements are present too. There’s lots of one-to-one time and students have a Career Coach to advise them. Full-time fees are typically £5,250 a term full-time, including exams.

Part-time students here are generally studying or having individual tuition elsewhere and then study one or two A levels here. It’s ideal if you, for instance, want to take a fourth A level and benefit from the expertise of the school’s online teaching team. It’s also pretty international – a bonus for anyone who loves cultural exchange opportunities. For applicants to all courses there’s a three-stage process and the school considers each applicant on merit.

It is worth noting that gaining qualifications from Harrow School Online or Pearson Online Academy UK – or via online teaching generally – is, by default, a way to stand out from the crowd. For one thing, it shows ‘gumption’ to plot this alternative route. It also shows self-motivation, determination and discipline – all vital for successful achievement at university and likely to mark you out to employers as a candidate to consider.

pearsononlineacademy.com and harrowschoolonline.org

Volunteering Student Reading To Children
Even with travel restrictions, student choices still include gap year projects and experiences for those who are willing to take a risk and look to the longer term

Gap year learning

The pandemic has been a disaster for students planning gap year adventure – or so you might think. In fact, the opportunities are still out there for students willing to think outside the box, take a risk and look to the long term. There’s certainly an incentive for many students to go for a gap year rather than head straight to university in the current uncertain climate. “Covid pushed a lot of students into an “accidental” gap year, since the idea of starting a university experience via Zoom wasn’t particularly appealing for many recent school graduates,” says Alia Pialtos, COO at gap-year review and information site GoOverseas and Board Member of the Gap Year Association.

Brian Schofield, Head of Upper Sixth at Hurst College recently suggested that students will need to treat university more like work. Perhaps the same could be said of gap years. While future employers might appreciate your independent spirit, travel in and of itself is not particularly unusual these days – so not a USP on anyone’s CV. Where it comes into its own is in giving you pause between school and the next stage, while also adding useful skills. The trick here is in defining what it is you want to do and why you want to do it, says Alia Pialtos of GoOverseas. “The most impactful gap years have always had a strong sense of intentionality, even if the intention is to explore the world through travel! While defining the value of taking a gap year can be a very personal process, gap years have been significant drivers for value creation in regards to soft skills – intercultural communication, resilience, creativity, confidence, problem solving, etc.”

“There’s even a new International Diploma in Volunteering available that can earn you 16 UCAS points – so the effort could bring a further reward”

Add in an element of paid work or unpaid volunteering – or gaining a particular qualification – and the gap year morphs into something rather more “impactful” and potentially useful for careers. For instance, Alia Pialtos says that au pair jobs and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualifications have remained popular throughout the pandemic among young people. TEFL is a good example as qualifications can be used abroad, in the UK at a language school or teaching English online. Pialtos adds that limited travel opportunities have made young people seek both domestic and virtual gap-year options over the past 18 months or so.

Looking slightly longer term, there’s no doubt that borders are starting to open up and many of the more traditional areas of gap year activity will start to flourish again. Projects Abroad, a long-established organiser of international volunteering and internships, is busy planning its 2022 schedule of opportunities in 25 countries and if you can’t go to the destination you planned, there’s a full refund policy. It’s also running trips right now – Ghana, Kenya and Romania are fully open and students travelling to countries where there are Red List restrictions get exemption for volunteer work.

Volunteering and internship opportunities, which run for students from 15+ through university and include specialist areas such as veterinary, medicine & healthcare and engineering, can be valuable CV-builders, helping students prove resourcefulness, interest and aptitude for specific pathways. There’s even a new International Diploma in Volunteering available through Projects Abroad that can earn you 16 UCAS points – so the effort of planning that gap year could bring you further reward when it comes to university applications. 

gooverseas.com and projects-abroad.co.uk

Mixed Group F E Collaboration
Further Education colleges offer a wide range of courses – including degrees – plus opportunities to mix with people from different backgrounds and age groups

College opportunities

Further Education (FE) colleges are often neglected in the search for places – or courses – to add the right qualifications and experience. This is an opportunity missed, since there are over 230 colleges in England alone (this includes sixth form, art and land-based colleges).

There are opportunities to study or (subject to vetting resit) GCSEs and A levels, take BTECs, apprenticeships and other vocational courses. Part-time and evening courses may be offered too, useful if you want to ‘shoehorn’ in an additional qualification to boost your CV or chances of being selected onto a university course. FE colleges also offer higher qualifications. In fact, the Association of Colleges says that around 118,000 people are studying for a first degree through an FE college – around a quarter of those are under 21. Prices for college degrees can reduce your student debt burden (typically around £5,500 PA). Some FE colleges have specific strengths in areas such as art, music production, vocational medical qualifications, engineering, film and photography.

“Around 118,000 people in England are studying for a first degree through a Further Education college – around a quarter of those are under 21”

There is a diversity among the student cohort at colleges – age, stage and background. So, if you like the idea of an educational setting where you will be mixing with people returning to learning, overseas students and your own age group, this option is worth exploring. UCAS is a good starting point on courses and pathways and, if you’re looking at local colleges seek out opinions from current/recent students, speak to careers advisors and take a look at recent Ofsted reports.

ucas.com and nationalcareers.service.gov.uk

Further reading: Brian Schofield of Hurst College on the shifting landscape for school leavers