The perception that educational success in the eyes of parents, teachers and students is defined largely in terms of third-level progression has stifled the career progression opportunity of so many of our young people whose talents lie elsewhere.
Because many schools and colleges look to the annual CAO progression data as the sole criteria for success, it can often lead to a reluctance among some schools to promote other non-CAO options.
This strong focus on third level has also limited the capacity of alternative course/training providers to communicate their message effectively to prospective students of these options and the excellent career progression opportunities their programmes offer.
Education for life is about so much more than progressing exclusively through third-level education.
We in Ireland have much to celebrate in delivering graduate and postgraduate education, which has transformed our society and economy over the past 40 years or so.
But this is far from being the complete story. For some, study in the local further education college, often called PLC courses, is not just a good alternative. It may also well be the place where the perfect career progression pathway appropriate to a young person’s aptitudes, interests and overall suitability is available.
An alternative route to college
There are many good arguments to take a post-leaving cert course. Progression to higher education is possible and the Higher Education Links Scheme offers graduates from Level 5 who have completed a major award opportunities to study for courses at Level 7 and 8.
For example, graduates on the Business Studies and Pre University Law QQI courses at Blackrock Further Education Institute (bfei.ie) have progressed to degree awards including Commerce in UCD (DN650), BESS in TCD (TR081), and Law in Maynooth (MH501). Around the country, further education graduates progress to third level in a remarkable range of disciplines.
Learners on the QQI Level 5 course in Social Studies with Criminality and Addictions studies at Sallynoggin College of Further Education get to study a broad range of subjects in addition to those in the title including psychology, political studies and intercultural studies.
Students from this course have progressed to degree courses in areas including social care, psychology, sociology and philosophy.
As the courses are only one year in duration and the class sizes are smaller, they also suit learners who are not sure about what direction to take or learners who need to develop their confidence and core academic skills.
Trying out a subject
Taking a further education course may well help school leavers consolidate their future study plans.
In one year, a student will be introduced to their chosen subject and will find out if it is a good fit for their interests.
Further education students develop the habits and skills to thrive in higher education. Writing, research, reflection, collaboration, presentation and communications skills are developed in producing and submitting a portfolio of assessment across the year.
These skills serve the post-Leaving Cert graduate well on entry to third level.
The Digital Marketing and Content Development Level 5 course in Ballyfermot (BCFE) is aimed at Leaving Certificate graduates or those seeking to upskill by providing learners with an introduction into key digital specialisms, including social media marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO) and content development skills.
At the end of this course, you will have discovered if this is your chosen career path, and you can then use this qualification to proceed into employment or further/higher education.
As a second shot
For many, the Leaving Cert has become solely an entrance exam for college. But not all young people are ready at 17-19 years of age to take that step.
A typical further education college will host a mix of school leavers and mature students. Return to education enables mature students to attain the skills, confidence and qualifications necessary for work and for life.
The impact of Covid-19 and the radical changes in work practices and the use of new technology has fueled this interest for many.
Many FE colleges provide training and QQI certification in office IT skills with an enhanced emphasis on developing the skills to work in the hybrid office environment.
Cavan Institute also provides a Level 5 Office Administration and Technology including work experience (cavaninstitute.ie). The labour market needs trained staff with the skills and flexibility to work in a wide variety of roles. Courses such as office IT skills are an excellent opportunity to reskill and return to work.
As an apprentice or trainee
One of the most interesting innovations in recent years is the emergence of apprenticeships and traineeships, again delivered in further education campuses throughout the country. Apprenticeships typically involve paid employment for four days a week and attendance at college for one day. They combine the practical benefits of paid relevant employment with academic study and qualification as a professional in fields including accounting technician, property valuation and insurance.
Cork College of Further Education and Training (corkcollegeofcommerce.ie) has several such programmes delivered at the Morrison's Island campus in Cork city.
Ballsbridge College of Further Education (ballsbridgecollege.com) also delivers the Level 6 Apprenticeship in Auctioneering and Property Services, leading to licensed status with the PRSA regulator.
Traineeships are a novel approach to further education. Solas, the State agency responsible for the resourcing of further education and training, provides support for some 75 traineeships throughout the country.
Of shorter duration than an apprenticeship, traineeships are keenly focused on work-based learning with at least 30 per cent of learning happening on the job. Such courses lead to industry-recognised qualifications including City and Guilds certification. There are some novel examples, such as the Aircraft Spraying Traineeship and the Aircraft Structures Technician Traineeship at the Shannon Campus of the College of FET (collegeoffet.ie) under the auspices of Limerick and Clare ETB.
Excellent tools where the wide variety of courses can be found are Qualifax (qualifax.ie) and Fetch Courses (fetchcourses.ie). Users of these sites can search by location, subject of interest and course level, and then engage directly by applying to the course provider of choice.
The cost of further education
Student life has in some ways gotten harder in recent years. The impact of the pandemic and remote learning has left a mark on our school leavers and college students.
The ongoing challenges to provide accommodation in major third-level centres, and the cost-of-living pressures we are all dealing with adds to the pressure families face when planning for their children’s education.
Further education and training colleges provide many opportunities to continue learning, often in your local town. The courses represent excellent value for money.
For example, learners do not pay the €3,000 Student Contribution Charge payable at third level, and they may qualify for the means-tested Susi maintenance grant. There will be necessary modest charges which vary by college and course.
Your local further education college will advise you on what is required. Families may find this an attractive option when one considers the uncertainty of commencing a three- or four-year degree.
A year to think and develop without the significant investment involved may well be a good bet when rebuilding resilience is essential.
As a sector, in 2021, Further Education and Training provided opportunities to more than 179,000 enrolled students, including 77,000 full-time learners as well as almost 18,000 apprentices.
The diversity, integrity and quality of programme delivery across Ireland is testament to the value of this sector.
The success stories of post Leaving Certificate courses and further education will continue to deliver a significant contribution to this agenda.