Is progression to college directly from school the only route?

Completing a third-level degree isn’t the only way to launch a successful career

Ireland has been transformed as a society by the introduction of free second-level education 50 years ago which enabled children to build careers based on the pen rather than the shovel.

The life-long benefits generated by staying in school up to and beyond the Leaving Cert have been well learned by today’s generation of parents who benefitted from second-level education themselves. And, they now want their own children to progress automatically up 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.

How to match our children’s learning styles with educational progression opportunities

Underneath this lurks another reality. Many of those students who achieve modest Leaving Cert points scores of 300 points or less and who progress into CAO courses, drop out of college, often with a deep sense of failure.


As their Leaving Cert results may have indicated, these students did not excel at academic learning in secondary school and the general academic routine associated with third level often proves to be a mismatch with their natural learning style.

Our third-level system is constructed to reward linguistics. Students are encouraged to use words effectively and will often have highly developed auditory skills, will think in words, will like reading, play word games, and compose poetry or stories. Such individuals can be taught by encouraging them to say and see words and read books together.

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

Howard Gardener (1991) in his work on multiple intelligences helps us identify those who are likely to excel at third level, and those who will struggle in such an environment.

He shows us that we all learn and come to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves.

According to Gardener, where we differ is in the strength of these intelligences – the so-called profile of intelligences – and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains.

So what about those young people who have struggled with linguistic and mathematical subjects in our academically orientated second-level Leaving Cert system? Would they not be better off progressing their learning in an environment where other learning styles are the medium through which teaching and learning takes place?

Are other options to higher education always second best?

This is where our system of Further Education (FE) 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 opportunities for tens of thousands of young and not so young learners every year to develop their abilities and skills, and consequentially their sense of self-worth and personal self-confidence.

Sadly, many will still seek out a CAO place, however unsuitable it might be, in preference to an FE or apprenticeship because of the false perception that academic progression is always the default option to be taken.

As a society we need to acknowledge and champion a far wider range of learning opportunities than those offered in academic education. For a significant cohort of those leaving second-level schools each year the option of studying for a QQI level 5 or 6 award at the local FE college or starting an apprenticeship, which mixes working in employment alongside study, is by far the most appropriate choice, even if a CAO place is available.

Further Education

Data provided by our third-level institutions show far higher retention rates from among FE graduates than from among school leavers from those who secure modest to average Leaving Cert results.

The small class sizes within the FE sector, alongside the project-based assessment methods used, together with the prevalence of work placements with local employers, is particularly suitable to large numbers 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 throughout the entire country 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.

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. I recently attended an awards ceremony for a group of six students at Blackrock FE college who had completed a three-week work placement in five and six-star hotels in Tenerife as part of their two-year beauty course. Their placement in Tenerife was funded through the European Union (EU) Erasmus Plus programme, organised through Léargas which co-ordinates this EU programme in Ireland. The students returned to Ireland with offers of employment allowing them to start their career journey within a few short months.

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 5 and 6 awards. I recently met two Irish students who are progressing successfully through physiotherapy degrees in two Dutch universities of applied sciences.

Details of every FE course on offer in Ireland are available through the website. 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 The EU programmes taught through English which offer places to those holding FE awards are available on


Solas is the national co-ordinating body for apprenticeships in Ireland. In the past few years it has been working to rebuild our traditional apprenticeships and develop a whole range of new ones across all sectors of the economy.

Apprenticeships are 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 who preferred doing as opposed to academic pursuits. 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 rapidly recovering and opportunities for young school leavers who have an aptitude for practical roles across the entire range of trades is expanding. The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) has a dedicated website,, to enable those interested in securing an apprenticeship in the industry to link up with local contractors who may be recruiting young apprentices.

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. In the last competition in Brazil in 2015, Ireland came 11th in the world rankings and we won a gold medal for aircraft maintenance; this was our fourth consecutive medal in aircraft maintenance, and we are the only country in the world to have achieved this.

Ireland is now an economy where full employment is within touching distance and we have the potential to provide a range of educational and training opportunities for people of all ages in tune with each individual personal learning style, which will meet the needs of learners and the wider economy.

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

Food industry apprenticeships

A new Commis Chef Apprenticeship Programme was launched in January 2018. The programme is of two years duration and training takes place both on and off the job each week. At the end of the programme, apprentices will be awarded a Level 6 Advanced Certificate in Culinary Arts. Apprentices on the programme will be employed by hotels, restaurants and catering companies throughout the country and will be paid industry-standard rates of pay while undertaking both on-the-job and off-the-job training.

The lead industry partners for the apprenticeship are the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland. This apprenticeship is co-ordinated by Kerry Education and Training Board and is being delivered by City of Dublin ETB, Cavan and Monaghan ETB, Cork ETB, Galway and Roscommon ETB, Kerry ETB and Limerick and Clare ETB. This apprenticeship is also supported by Fáilte Ireland. Further details of the apprenticeship can be found on

Manufacturing apprenticeships

Since the demise of plants such as Ford in Cork in the 1960s, Ireland has not had a culture of providing high-quality manufacturing apprenticeships. In May 2018 Combilift opened a €50 million 46,500 sq m purpose-built factory set on a 100-acre site, with 11 acres of roof space. It is one of the largest manufacturing operations under one single roof in the Republic of Ireland, equivalent to 3½ Croke Parks. It manufactures fork lift trucks and other lifting products, exporting 98 per cent of production to 85 countries with more than 40,000 units sold to date.

Combilift employs 550 people and an additional 200 jobs are due to be created over the next three years across all areas from skilled technicians, design engineers, logistics and supply chain specialists and those with mechanical and electrical mechatronics skills. Combilift led the establishment of the Engineering Traineeship with CMETB in 2015. All successful graduates of the course in 2017 were offered full-time employment with Combilift.

Insurance apprenticeships

There is an insurance practitioner apprenticeship offered online over three years through IT Sligo. On successful completion the apprentice is awarded a Level 8 BA (Hons.) in Insurance Practice. The lead industry partner for this apprenticeship is the Insurance Institute of Ireland. It involves four days a week paid on-the-job training, and one day a week off-the-job and online.

An accountant technician apprenticeship is offered through FE colleges throughout the country. The apprenticeship is a two-year programme which involves four days a week paid on-the-job training, and one day a week off-the-job. The apprenticeship is co-ordinated by Accounting Technicians Ireland and is delivered in a range of locations in Cavan and Monaghan ETB, City of Dublin ETB, Cork ETB, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB, and Waterford and Wexford ETB.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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