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Alternatives to the CAO application process

The traditional pathway to third level is not the only route you can take to achieve your career advancement goals.

"The unquestioning belief in Ireland that academic success directly relates to career success makes any option other than securing a CAO place in a third-level institution unacceptable to many." Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Ireland was transformed as a society by the introduction of free second-level education more than 50 years ago. It enabled children to build careers based on the pen rather than the shovel but left in its wake an unhealthy focus on the third-level academic pathway through the CAO application system as the preferred option of the vast majority of parents for their children.

For those who followed the third-level route or who did not have the opportunity to do so, the desire to see their children follow that path remains a very powerful driver of how our post-second-level education system is structured.

These parents now want their own children to progress automatically through higher education to honours degree, masters, and PhD levels.

The unquestioning belief in Ireland that academic success directly relates to career success makes any option other than securing a CAO place in a third-level institution unacceptable to many.


The figures are impressive at first sight. More than 90 per cent of children remain in full-time education until the Leaving Cert. Eighty per cent of that number aspire to a college place through the CAO every year and more than 65 per cent of each year’s cohort progresses on to colleges through that route, making Ireland among the highest participants at third level in the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Making the right match

Many of those students who achieve modest Leaving Cert point scores (300 points or fewer) and who progress into CAO courses will end up dropping out of college. As their Leaving Cert results may have indicated, many were not suited to academic learning in secondary school and the general academic routine associated with third level may have been mismatched with their natural learning style.

Our third-level system is constructed to reward linguistic ability. Students are encouraged to use words effectively and will often have highly developed auditory skills, they will think in words, will like reading, play word games and compose poetry or stories.

Third level also rewards logical-mathematical reasoning, abstract and conceptual thinking and those who can see and explore patterns and relationships and can form concepts before tackling the details.

So, what about those young people who have struggled with linguistic and mathematical subjects in our academically oriented second level Leaving Cert system?

Would they not be better served to progress their learning in an environment where other learning styles are the medium through which teaching and learning take place?

Other options?

This is where our system of further education (FET) and enhanced and expanding apprenticeship programmes (where ongoing training and part-time study are built into the job) come into their own.

These routes from school into adult life provide many options for the tens of thousands of young learners who wish to develop their abilities and skills in a way that is best suited to them.

For a significant cohort of those leaving second-level schools each year the option of studying for a QQI level five or six award at the local FET college or starting an apprenticeship, which mixes working in employment alongside study, is by far the most appropriate choice, even if a CAO place happens to be available to them.

Minister for Further Education Niall Collins is promoting a hugely expanded range of options on offer through the apprenticeship route.

But for his initiative to succeed, there will have to be a major change in the outlook of Irish society regarding the relationship between education/training and social-class status.

We are not Germany. Ireland does not have a history of developing a high-skilled apprenticeship-rooted workforce that is recognised to be of equal standing to those who progress their careers through traditional universities.

Further education

Previously, Ireland’s further-education sector was commonly perceived to be the place where students who did not succeed did not secure the points for their favorite CAO course in the Leaving Cert gravitated towards the following year.

If that was ever true, it is far from the truth today. Data provided by our third-level institutions show far higher retention rates among FET graduates.

Small class sizes in the FET sector, alongside the project-based assessment methods, along with the prevalence of work placements with local employers, are particularly suitable to a large number of our young people.

Many programmes are designed in conjunction with local employers and are attuned to the employers’ needs. Therefore, the skills developed during the course are relevant to both the local and wider labour market.

Further education courses are provided in colleges countrywide through the network of education and training boards.

They offer courses that are designed to consolidate the learning of those who excel in disciplines such as science, business and art but who may need the year to acquire the skills to navigate their way successfully through a more formal degree programme in their area of interest at university or at an IT.

Up to 20 per cent of places in many of the highest CAO points score courses in the country are reserved for graduates of FET courses each year which means applicants secure places and thrive in those courses even though 12 months previously they were hundreds of CAO points short of the required entry score.

Apart from those who now use FET as a backdoor to college, many other FE courses are designed to prepare students to enter directly into high-quality employment immediately on completion of their one- or two-year course.

The links between FE courses and CAO programmes, where reserved places are allocated to students based on the quality of their award, are available through Details of every FE course on offer in Ireland are available through the website.


A new National Apprenticeship Office was set up by Solas and the HEA in 2022 to be the national co-ordinating body for apprenticeships. In the past few years, work has been under way to rebuild our traditional apprenticeships and develop a whole range of new courses across all sectors of the economy. An Action Plan for Apprenticeships 2021-2025 is being implemented by the new office, with an ambitious programme of transformation and development of the system.

Apprenticeships have been traditionally associated with the construction and motor industries and with young men. They have provided high-quality training and employment opportunities for generations of learners.

Following the crash in 2008 the entire construction sector, and to a lesser extent the motor industry, fell apart and the apprenticeship route practically disappeared as an option for school leavers from 2009-2016.

Thankfully, the construction industry is now operating at full capacity and given the huge shortage of housing currently frustrating the ambitions of many young workers to purchase their own homes, those considering a career within this industry will have guaranteed employment for many years to come.

Many of our existing apprenticeships are world-class. People often extol the virtues of the German and Swiss systems and that is completely justified, but Irish apprentices are also well regarded abroad. And Ireland consistently does well at WorldSkills competitions, the skills Olympics.

Beyond the traditional apprenticeships, numbers are set to reach 10,000 apprentice registrations per year under the five-year Government plan aimed at boosting “earn and learn” options for school leavers.

There are now 70 apprenticeship programmes available in new industry areas that include green skills such as wind turbine maintenance and white-collar areas such as international financial services, software, biopharma and supply chain management. Up to 10 new apprenticeships have been launched in the past year , in areas that include farming, horticulture, quantity surveying and civil engineering.

The Minister said the new plan creates a big opportunity for “cultural change” around the status of apprenticeships.

“These aren’t just alternatives to colleges,” he said. “They are, in many cases, an alternative way of doing college which offers a degree at the end of it. It’s not just about plumbing and building anymore; you can also be a quantity surveyor or engineer if you want.”

New apprenticeships for accounting technicians, retail supervisors and sales are especially popular, and the apprenticeships in the area of agriculture and horticulture (applied horticulture, farm management, farm technician, sports turf management) are expected to be in high demand.

Under the Government plan, public-sector bodies are being asked to dramatically boost the number of apprentices in local authorities, the Civil Service and other State-funded bodies.

We need to embrace the diversity of opportunity now on offer and overcome our obsession with one specific model offered by university education.

See , and

Studying in Europe after an FE award

Much publicity has been given over recent years to the growth of degree programmes taught through English in western European traditional universities, and universities of applied sciences, particularly in the Netherlands.

What is less well known is that the universities of applied sciences are more than happy to offer places to Irish FE students based on their level-five and six awards.

I have met many Irish students who are progressing successfully through physiotherapy degrees in a number of Dutch universities of applied sciences.

The EU programmes taught through English which offer places to those holding FE awards are available on

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times