What are your options if you are disappointed with your CAO offer?

There are alternatives to the traditional route to further your education

It may come as a surprise to many parents and students, but I often recommend that students who have secured an offer from the Central Applications Office (CAO) of one of their course choices should consider the alternative option prior to moving on to a third-level degree programme.

For students who don't receive a satisfactory CAO offer, the argument is even more compelling. Many Leaving Cert students are still uncertain where their academic interests lie and often proceed to third level out of the fear of being left behind or losing contact with their peer group.

Further education

Further Education and Training (FET) offers different education routes such as Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses for school-leavers.

These courses can act as a stepping stone into further learning and higher education, a way to try out a new area of learning, as well as being a way to progress directly into a huge variety of careers.


FET aims to provide education pathways for everyone. It offers every individual, regardless of any previous level of education, a pathway to take them as far as they want to go.

There are many advantages to choosing the FET route including the opportunity to earn and learn in smaller class sizes and no tuition fees for PLCs.

Another key advantage of FET is location, programmes are delivered through 16 Education and Training Boards nationally with FET provision available in every county in Ireland.

All further education (FE) colleges throughout the country are still taking enrolments and students can go on to any college website to apply online.

Classes start in early to mid-September and many will allow for the postponed Leaving Cert this year, so there is time to find a course.

Some colleges will hold open days so check out your local colleges’ websites. Assessment and certification for FE courses is based on both work during the year and exams at the end.

Many FE courses are now specifically designed as preparation courses for entry into third-level programmes, in IT, law, business, science, architecture, art and design, etc.

Following completion of their year in FE, many students progress back into a CAO course through reserved places, bypassing the CAO points requirements.

For many aspiring learners a year’s reflection while taking a level-five or -six PLC programme in an area of genuine interest in their local FE college could be a wise choice.

If the course engages their interest fully, they can then confidently proceed to apply for a course in that area at third level, using either their current year CAO points or the level-five award, which is one route many students can take to secure places in programmes where they do not have enough CAO points to secure entry.

Details of all PLC/FE courses are available on the qualifax.ie website.

Private colleges

The private higher education sector in Ireland is well established, with a wide range of courses currently enrolling, either through the “available places” option on the CAO website or by direct application.

Griffith College offers 197 full and part-time courses up to Master's level at its campuses in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

These include programmes in business, law, computing, engineering, media as well as many programmes in the creative sector. It also is an education partner on an apprenticeship for advanced healthcare assistants, and has a range of creative programmes in film, television, photography, design, interiors, communications and fashion.

Dublin Business School has a range of level-eight degrees which may be attractive to those disappointed by the rise in CAO points. These programmes include a BSc (Hons) in Computing, BA(Hons) in Psychology which is accredited by the Psychological Society of Ireland , and a BA (Hons) in Business, Accounting and Finance.

Dublin Business School also offers free tuition fees on four of its programmes through CAO as part of additional places under the Government Human Capital Initiative (HCI): BSc (Hons) Computing (DB500), BSc (Hons) Computing – Data Analytics and Big Data (DB502), BA (Hons) Business – Information Systems (DB524) and BA (Hons) Business – Cloud Computing (DB526). Under HCI there are no tuition fees for those four programmes, and students will have to pay only a €1,500 registration fee.

Study through English in Europe

In most European universities, you have a right of entry with the minimum entry requirements, but constant and intensive commitment to the programme is essential if you want to make it into second year. Studying abroad is a fantastic opportunity, but I would hesitate if I was yet to celebrate my 18th birthday.

A wide selection of all of the programmes taught through English across both research and applied science universities in Europe, including the limited number which still have availability for September 2021, are listed on eunicas.ie with application deadlines and fees.

Although the application deadlines have passed for many continental European degrees, a small number of courses can still be applied for this month. It is worth noting that a limited number of programmes, particularly in the Netherlands, have a second alternative starting point in February.


There are now 62 different types of apprenticeship available in Ireland across 14 industry sectors. Alongside the well-established craft apprenticeships in areas such as construction, engineering and motor, the range of options is increasing with new apprenticeships available in areas including CGI (computer generated imagery), healthcare, recruitment, finance, ICT, logistics, hospitality and sales.

Qualifications range from level six on the National Framework of Qualifications up to level-10 doctorate. The number entering apprenticeship is on the rise with 21,500 people currently in apprenticeships across the country. Included in these figures is a welcome increase in the number of women and girls taking up apprenticeships.

To begin an apprenticeship, an applicant must be employed by an approved employer. To be eligible, the applicant must be at least 16 years of age and have a minimum of grade D in any five subjects in the Junior Certificate or equivalent.

However, higher educational qualifications and other requirements may be sought by employers. Many employers are now advertising their vacancies on the recently developed jobs portal onapprenticeship.ie.

Apprentices pay a pro-rata registration fee if their off-the-job training takes place within a higher-education institute. The registration fee will generally equate to the amount of time the apprentice spends in the institute. The payment of the pro-rata registration fee is made by the apprentice directly to the higher education institute.

For apprenticeships developed before 2016, mainly in the construction and motor sectors, the employer pays the apprentice while he or she is being trained on the job. A training allowance is paid by the local Education and Training Board while the apprentice is attending the off-the-job training.

For those developed in 2016 and after, the employer pays the apprentice for the duration of the apprenticeship. In all cases, the rate of pay is agreed between the employer and the apprentice.

Last year, the Apprenticeship Incentivisation Scheme for employers was introduced, offering €3,000 in financial support to employers who take on apprentices. It was recently extended to December 31st of this year. To date, more than 1,500 employers have benefited from the scheme, hiring more than 3,000 apprentices.

New apprenticeship programmes developed in the past number of years include a supply chain specialist apprenticeship delivered through the University of Limerick, where students work and learn online with one day on campus every three weeks, for which they are paid. They receive a level-eight degree following the completion of their programme.


For students interested in a more direct route to employment, a traineeship is worth considering. It combines learning in an education and training setting and in the workplace, and provides learners with job-specific training and workplace coaching with an employer, at levels four to six on the National Framework of Qualifications.

Traineeships also give students the opportunity to gain valuable experience in real work and industry environments, providing cutting-edge industry skills. Traineeships are six to 20 months in duration and are delivered through local Education and Training Boards. There are traineeship programmes available around the country across a range of industry areas including aviation, bakery, IT, animation, hospitality and digital marketing.

Repeat the Leaving

Students who are unhappy with the grades they secured through the process put in place this year have the option of sitting the Leaving Cert again. Repeating was once a popular option for students who wanted to have another go but as there are more options available for school-leavers now, and many can get their CAO course through a level-five PLC, the numbers that choose to repeat are now low. The number of schools offering this option has also decreased considerably as a result.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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