CAO Round 2: There are exciting alternatives to third-level education

Peter McGuire examines the opportunities offered by apprenticeships and plcs


The drums are banging loudly for college. Trinity is the best university in Ireland and everyone should aspire to attend third-level. Students might opt to stay closer to home or perhaps they have a particular course in, say, UCC or GMIT in mind.

Middle-class people, in particular, have tended to go to third-level and the highest points courses in the seven universities are dominated by graduates of elite fee-paying schools. This is how things are done in Ireland.

But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if not every young person wants to go to university? What if, despite all the grinds and the not-so-subtle expectation that they will attend third-level, it’s the wrong fit for them? What if they don’t have the money? What if they didn’t get the CAO points they need? What if they actually just want to go out to work? What if they’re just not ready for college?

There are alternatives. And those alternatives are much more viable than ever before. Over the past few years Solas, the further education and training agency, has reimagined the apprenticeship system. Post Leaving Cert courses, provided through a strong national network of education and training boards and overseen by Solas, have been revised and, in some cases, redeveloped.

Nikki Gallagher, director of communications at Solas, says that the organisation wants to make sure that students are aware of all their education options after school. “The apprenticeship and PLC options both have a lot to offer and they give people really valuable skills. People can realise their potential through apprenticeship, through a PLC or through a higher education course. No one option is intrinsically better than another; the student has to choose what is right for them.”

So, whether you’re reluctant to go to third-level, or whether you wanted to go but didn’t get the points you need, don’t panic. There are other options. It might not be the option that parents imagined, but the student is either an adult or very close to it, and the decision has ultimately to be theirs.

Here, we take a look at the alternatives to college and talk to students about their alternative experience.


Aaron Fitzpatrick was always fascinated by aircraft. He attended school in Blanchardstown and was one of the fortunate ones: he knew what he wanted to do. He considered classroom-based courses in DIT and UL, but knew he wanted the hands-on experience. After school, he signed up to a four-year apprenticeship in aircraft maintenance, working at Dublin Aerospace and splitting part-time studies between Shannon ETB and DIT. He’s learning everything he needs to know, he’s getting the college experience and he is paid a wage that rises incrementally between second and fourth year. When he leaves college, he will be qualified to fix aircraft and he will have a CV loaded with experience.

He’s not alone in looking to apprenticeships. After the 2008 recession, the uptake of apprenticeships – many of which were structured around the construction industry – virtually collapsed, with numbers falling from 28,500 to 5,700 by 2013, a fall of 80 per cent. But now it seems that the apprenticeship system needed to die so it could be reborn. Solas, with the full support of the Government, aims to increase the number of apprenticeships to 50,000 by 2020, and it’s already having an impact: between October 2015 and October 2016, there was a 19 per cent increase in apprenticeship numbers.

The first port of call for students taking on apprenticeships is the website, which contains a wealth of valuable information. All apprenticeships that run through Solas are approved by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), the highest educational certifying body in Ireland and who also approve all third-level courses.

The range of courses on offer is growing. As well as the more traditional apprenticeship options like carpentry, mechanics, plumbing and construction, there are various electrical and engineering courses. Last year, a new insurance practice course launched; students gain practical and valuable experience of work in an insurance firm, take part in lecturers every Tuesday and earn money. Other new options have come on stream in recent months, including polymer processing technology and electrical instrumentation. Down the line, financial services, ICT, baker, butcher and commis chef apprenticeships are planned.

There are now just over 30 apprenticeships available in Ireland, although we still have some way to go: Germany, where apprenticeship is seen as on an equal footing with third-level, offers around 300. And the number of women on apprenticeships remains very low, although Solas is determined to change this and to tackle the barriers that prevent women from taking on apprenticeships. We’re getting there but, for many people, it’s not the most familiar route.

“Every apprenticeship starts with a job,” Gallagher explains. “Every apprentice is employed from day one and there are really good prospects. We know from real-world examples that apprentices can earn a good living, become self-employed or even become CEO of a multi-million-euro firm. It doesn’t stop at your qualification; there are all sorts of further opportunities for advancement, education and continuous professional development. Margaret Reilly, founder and owner of Grand Designs Kitchen and Bedroom and winner of Small Businesswoman of the Year, got her start as an apprentice cabinet-maker. Connor Flanagan, chief executive of the Atlantic Aviation Group, trained as an apprentice in instrumentation.”

Apprenticeships can be both a fall-back option for people who didn’t get their CAO course choice and a first choice for people looking for a specific qualification. Apprentices need only a junior cert qualification to get onto a course, although at least 90 per cent also have their Leaving Cert. Around 55 per cent of apprentices are between 18 and 21 years old, but the other 45 per cent are 21 and over.

“We are reaching out to schools and guidance counsellors to encourage people to think about their options,” says Gallagher. “But apprenticeships are for all people and all ages.”

Panel: Top five apprenticeships (popularity – registration numbers forecast for 2017)

1. Electrical – 1,280 students

2. Carpentry and joinery – 570 students

3. Plumbing – 460 students

4. Motor mechanics – 420 students

5. Metal fabrication – 200 students

The PLC option

When Aisling Mooney left school, she didn’t really know what she wanted to do. When her Leaving Cert results came out, she didn’t get a CAO offer.

“I didn’t have a plan,” she says. “I didn’t really see the significance of the Leaving Cert. And I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. I didn’t think I was capable. I wanted to get out of school, go to work, earn a few bob and have a good time. That was about 10 years ago and it wasn’t hard to get a job. I worked in offices, supermarkets, receptions and cleaning jobs.”

After a few years, Mooney went travelling for a year and a half, working in America and Australia on the way. “Travel brought the world into focus for me,” she says. “I was living in Australia and working in a call centre job that I hated. I realised that I could either do various odd jobs for the rest of my life – or I could focus on a career.”

She thought about what she would like to do and realised she had always wanted to be a vet or a nurse so, when she came home, she decided on nursing.

“That’s when the idea of a PLC came in. I did the research and then I applied to study pre-nursing at Greenhills College. From the beginning, I knew that the end goal was to get into nursing, but the support I got at Greenhills really encouraged me. I wasn’t good in school and was afraid to try because I feared failing. When I was 17, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of college. But with the support of my tutors, they spurred me on and I started to believe in myself. I’m now about to enter my fourth and final year of an honours level nursing degree at UCD and I’m really enjoying the course and the college experience.”

Many students who are disappointed to miss out on a college course might look to PLCs, but they’re much more than just a fall-back. The evidence shows that PLCs can be a really good option for students, says Gallagher. “If there’s an area that a person is interested in, it can be the best route. For some people, they are an entry route to college, but many others can take their qualification and go straight into employment or, indeed, set up their own businesses.”

PLC courses are often seen as the poor relation of higher education but they’re often as valuable – or more so – than a college course. There is, for instance, no better place to study animation than in Ballyfermot College of Further Education, which has produced Oscar winners. But there’s a whole slew of great options out there, including childcare, retail practice, restaurant operations, office skills, tourism, horticulture, software development, sports and recreation, community development, beauty therapy and much more. While some of these may lead people straight into a third-level course, others may be an entry route into a job that leads to a career, promotion and opportunity.

– For a list of PLC courses, check out It’s a really user-friendly and informative website and will tell you everything you need to know.

Going straight to work/ Gap years

Going straight from school to work? Heresy.

Or is it? Eoin Corbett (21) was always very academic in school but, by his admission, he never really enjoyed the subjects he was doing. “I prefer to learn by doing than by sitting down with a book,” he says. “In my second year of secondary school, I got really into film-making and found I was good at it. I got part-time work making videos and working with technology, and I was making documentaries and films in my spare time. I won an award at the RTÉ Fresh film festival, which screened films by young people.”

He was immersed in the world of film, but it was expected that he would go to college. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go and study in college, because school hadn’t been my favourite thing. I was doing well as a film-maker and knew I could do it as a career. It wasn’t the plan to leave school and go to work. I knew I would take a gap year regardless and I didn’t’ fill out my CAO form that year. The summer after my Leaving Cert gap year I got an email from some who had seen my films and asked me to produce for him. Then I got an internship in Storyful (a news and marketing agency which focuses on social media and viral content). I went for interview and, at the last minute, they asked me if I had a degree. I didn’t, but because of my experience, it wasn’t an issue.”

For some industries, hands-on experience can be the best way to learn. This journalist never studied journalism in college; I worked in college newspapers, wrote for smaller magazines and publications and plugged away. Sean Flynn, the late education editor of The Irish Times, was a mentor to me and taught me much of what I know (In today’s tough media environment, however, journalism postgrads can be useful for learning who is who in the industry as well as getting newsroom experience and making contacts.)

Third-levels are increasingly cottoning on to the need for practical experience and many are now incorporating work experience into their degree courses. Corbett doesn’t think he will ever go to college. He accepts that, as a successful teenage film-maker, he is somewhat of an anomaly.

“People always seem to talk in the negative about not going to college and say that everyone must have a degree to be a success. But I know people with excellent skills who have never gone to college. I won’t apologise for it and I’m delighted to be where I am in the industry.”

Most people do go from school to higher or further education but some will need time out, perhaps for financial or personal reasons. And deferral is an option. Barring the collapse of civilisation, further or higher education isn’t going anywhere.

If you’re not sure where you’re going or what you want to do, Corbett says that a gap year can be a very good choice. “Trying to work out a future career is a big ask. A gap year can be used to work or travel, or to try your hand at various jobs. If you have a passion or interest – as I had with film-making – it can be a chance to delve into it. Even if it doesn’t work out as you planned, you will have had a year to relax and to gather your thoughts.”