A School Leavers’ Guide to Planning for the Future

school leavers

Each period of our life is characterised by certain thresholds which we must pass to move on to the next stage of our life. Our first step, first word, our first and last day of school. One of the biggest thresholds young adults will have to pass is secondary school. Many of us leave our family, friends and childhood home behind to enter the adult world. It can be a testing time, but also an exciting one since it's most people’s first foray into independence and economic freedom.

The end of secondary school also means that you will be at one of life’s major junctions, with a myriad of decisions that could affect the rest of your life. So what do you do? Well, hopefully, this guide will give you all the options available to school leavers, so that you can decide what would be the best fit for your interests, ambitions and view of the future.

Preparing to Leave School

prepare leave school

Before we delve deep into the sea of options for the future, it would be wise to concentrate on the present and some of the steps you need to get the most out of your last year in school. First and foremost try to be as studious as possible, the better grades you finish school with the more doors you will have open to you. Here are some other steps you can take in your last year that will help you in the near future:

Use Free Time as Career Building Time

Weekends and holidays aren’t just for playing the latest video game, they're for that too, you could try to secure an internship, volunteer position or temporary work within the sector you would like to have a job/career in. You have the benefit of the inexhaustible energy of youth on your side, use it to your advantage to start building the strong foundations of a solid career with these experiences.

Have a Plan and Timetable

I know you had enough of plans and timetables in school, but these will help you decide what you might like to do in the future. They will help you keep track of significant deadlines for applications, job/apprenticeship/school leavers program fairs, company open houses and other informational events. These will not only help introduce you to your options they could help you make a decision.

Take Advantage of All Services Available

Most schools have career counsellors, but you shouldn’t just depend on that resource. There are many dedicated websites that offer great career insights for school and university students, while career-based websites have many articles dealing with choosing a career. Using all available resources will help you make the most educated and informed decision.

What Are Your Options?


school leavers options

Now that we’ve spoken about what you should do to prepare yourself during your last year of school, let’s take a look at the general options that you have available to you. The most obvious and popular is continuing your studies in University, you may also choose to enter an apprenticeship which will allow you to receive on the job training/education, or you might just choose to enter the workforce. We take a much more analytical look at each of these options in the sections below.


#1 University



A University degree is arguably the most mainstream option school leavers choose. In recent years though its viability has come into question due to the increasing cost of higher education and the necessity to take on crippling student loans to cover them. Even though that can be a huge disadvantage, a bachelor's degree comes with some significant benefits.



  • One of the biggest advantages of a University degree is the potential for continued employment. Compared to non-degree holders, university degree holders not only make more money during their professional life, but they also experience fewer interruptions in employment. In OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 84% of individuals with tertiary education are employed compared to 74% with higher secondary education.
  • More jobs for degree holders are being created, while few jobs are being created for individuals with just secondary educations.
  • Studies have found that higher education not only benefits the degree holder’s personal finances and the economy at large but also affect values and attitudes, which makes higher education a cultural influencer and preserver of societal values.


  • It's costly:  £12,000 to £13,500 for living costs and between £3,500 and £9,000 in tuition per year. If you have a university fund or come from an affluent family, you will be fine. If you come from the lower strata of the economy, though this can be a significant economic burden. Most people take out student loans which only increase the burden through interest.
  • The aforementioned investment is not a guarantee of employment. Just this year a whopping 50,000 graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree. 10,000 university students are employed in an “elementary” position or low-skilled jobs such as retail and general labourers and 14,000 were unemployed.
  • Lost Income: not only are you paying for your college education out of pocket or via loans, but you are also losing money that you could have earned in the four years you spend studying.

Should I Study/What Should I Study?

This can be one of the biggest dilemmas a young adult will encounter. We’ve seen the benefits and some of the disadvantages of a traditional education, including the higher potential of initial and continuous employment being counterbalanced by the increasing cost of higher education. Even if you made the decision to go to University, you will have yet another dilemma to deal with; What should I study in University?

What Do You Like to Do?

First and foremost you need to simply assess: what do you like and what are you interested in. One of the biggest keys to success in higher education is being passionate about the subject matter you are studying. Getting a degree is a long, arduous and expensive process. If you are disengaged with what you are studying, it becomes infinitely more challenging.

How Long Do You Want/Can You Study?

There are certain fields of study that are academic and thus require an advanced degree to be employable. For example, although a Mathematics degree has real world applicability, a theoretical mathematics degree holder would benefit greatly from a Ph.D which would allow them to work in academia.

To earn an advanced degree requires an immense commitment of money and time. It takes three years for your undergraduate, one year for a master’s and two to three years for a Ph.D. If you are lucky your school will offer tuition leniencies and paid positions to graduate students as teacher’s assistants or research associates. If not, you will have to finance the entire endeavor out of pocket or via loans.

What Kind of Lifestyle Do You Want After University?

This is a question that is often overlooked due to youthful exuberance/enthusiasm and idealism. Most degrees or fields of study have predictable employment possibilities and compensation standards. For example, an individual with a degree in Economics and Finance will have more earning potential out of University than a primary school.

Your income will correlate directly with your lifestyle after graduating. Another factor is employability, because that not only means you will start making money earlier, you will have more opportunities for both vertical and horizontal career moves because of the availability of work.

Do I Want Job Satisfaction or High Pay?

This is an elaboration of the previous question, but there is a strong correlation between (relatively) low paid professions that are socially rewarding and high job satisfaction. Generally, fast paced, very demanding professions are highly compensated, but also have high levels of burnout, stress, and depression.

#2 Vocational Training


vocational training



  • Hands on occupation: this is a benefit only if you actually like working with your hands, in lieu of a desk job. Of course, if this is the case, working with your hands can give you a feeling of accomplishment and be extremely rewarding.
  • Potential for immediate employment: many vocational training schools have employment agreements for their students with companies in their field.
  • Income: In recent years due to the saturation of the job market with degree holders their salaries have either stagnated or even depreciated. Skilled laborers, on the other hand, have seen an increase of both their fees and the number of positions available.


  • Some vocational jobs deal with physical hazards that office/white-collar workers wouldn’t be exposed to, including dangerous chemicals, high voltage, heavy machinery and lifting/carrying heavy weights. These dangers increase the possibility of personal injury.
  • Being locked into a specific industry: Although there is always the potential to transition into a different career with further training (and monetary expense), a specific vocational training might lock you into a very specific industry and career path.
  • Social status: although this shouldn’t be a factor, especially if you are passionate about the profession you want to do, skilled laborers tend to be considered of a lower status, than individuals that go to University. Which is ironic considering that economically speaking as I mentioned above, skilled laborers have come to make as much, if not more than degree holders in recent years, without the crippling debt.

Should I Go to Vocational School?

You are good with your hands, but you don’t want to dedicate three years of studying to become an engineer and pay a large amount of money to do so.  If this is the case then vocational training also known as trade school might be perfect for you. Not only are there dedicated trade schools in the UK, but many traditional educational institutions also offer vocational courses or complete certification in certain fields. Cardiff and Vale College, for example, has a long list of academic courses, but at the same time offers full vocational training programmes in subjects such as accounting.

What Should I Train to Do?

The first consideration when trying to decide what industry you’d like to enter is what talents you have and where your interests lie. If you are still aren’t sure think about the working conditions you would like, ask yourself some questions. Do you like working outside? Do you like the camaraderie of a large team? Do you prefer to be self-motivated and work alone? These are all considerations that should help you make your decision.

#3 Getting a Job

get job


  • No lost income: you have a head start on your contemporaries when it comes to the competitive job and housing market. Instead of paying out of pocket for any type of training or education, you are immediately making money after leaving school receiving your training from your employer.
  • Education isn’t for everyone. Even though it might seem insensitive, not everyone wants to dedicate highly productive years of their life to education or training, especially if they have no guarantee that both their investment of time and money will pay off or be used.
  • You gain experience and start your career earlier than your peers, which depending on the industry could mean that you surpass some of your peers even though they might have formal education or training.


  • Much like taking a vocational path, getting a job after school comes with a certain societal stigma.
  • The possibility of vertical professional movement (upwards career mobility) is greatly restricted with the lack of a formal education
  • Generally, individuals without formal education are compensated less than individuals with higher education or qualifications in the same position.

Should I Get a Job After School?

If you feel that you don’t want to go to uni, and you aren’t interested in vocational training, then your next choice is just getting a job. There are some steps you need to take before you enter the real world, though, lucky for you I’ve created a little list for you:

What you need to get a job

  • What job do you want?

This, of course, should be the first thing that you should think about before you start looking: What do you want to do? Do you want something in sales, construction, customer service? Consider your lack of experience and education when deciding.

  • Do you have a CV?

A CV lists all your qualifications, certifications, accomplishments and credentials. Although certain employers have their own proprietary application process, with online forms or something similar, others will likely ask for a CV. If you lack experience, you can add extracurricular activities or other responsibilities that you might have had that apply to the position you are interested in. 

  • Job Search 

Obviously, this is one of the most significant parts of the process, looking for a job will be the most intense part of getting a job. There are various ways you can go about your job search the most obvious being visiting one of the many job search websites like:

Another alternative is using recruiters, although in most cases recruiters will tend to work with degree holders.

  • Prepare for interviews 

Make sure that when you do get interviews, that you are well prepared. There are a plethora of resources online to help you prepare for interviews, career addict is no exception!

Jobs for school leavers can fall into one of these many industries available in the U.K:

  • Aeronautical and Defense
  • Alternative Investment Industries
  • Automotive and Parts
  • Banking
  • Beverage – Production
  • Building and Materials
  • Commercial Transport
  • Domestic Goods
  • Electricity Generation and Distribution
  • Electrical Equipment and Electricity
  • Engineering Products
  • Financial Services and Products
  • Food Products
  • Forestry and Paper
  • Fossil Fuel Distribution, Refinement
  • Health Care and Proximal Services
  • Household Services
  • Industrial Chemicals
  • Industrial
  • Insurance
  • Investment
  • IT Hardware and Services
  • Leisure Services and Products
  • Media and Marketing
  • Pharmaceuticals and Biotech
  • Metals and Refineries
  • Mining
  • Personal Service and Goods
  • Property and Real Estate
  • Retail Sales and Distribution
  • Customer Services and Support
  • Telecommunications
  • Tobacco and related services
  • Tourism and Hospitality

#4 Gap Year/Year Out

gap year

If you aren’t familiar with the term “Gap Year” or “Year Out” it is a period that “gappers” as there are known, travel, work odd jobs to make ends meet or volunteer. There are many proponents of a “Year Out” but it also comes with some disadvantages.


  • You probably won’t have another opportunity in your life to take such a prolonged period of time and dedicate it to any experience you choose.
  • This can be a very valuable experience especially for someone that has never travelled outside their home country.
  • It can give you experiences that might help you find a job, especially if you find a company that has a culture that encourages similar experiences.
  • Especially if your gap year includes volunteering in a foreign country, it can prove adaptability and ability to work in trying conditions.


  • Can be perceived by future employers as an irresponsible and a frivolous activity, which will hurt your employability.
  • You can use the time spent on your “year out” to gain experience in the field you’d like to enter after training or education. Even if you didn’t intend to go through formal education and just get a job, you could have dedicated a “gap year” learning your new position and completing your probationary period which most jobs require.
  • It can be dangerous, especially if you want to engage in volunteer work in certain locations around the world.

Why take a Gap Year?

It is an excellent opportunity to do some social good and experience things that you wouldn’t, under normal circumstances. Most companies see “year outs” as beneficial experiences for young school leavers and feel that it shows an openness to new experiences and adaptability. At the same time, this is a point of polarisation for many professionals in the field; one segment doesn’t see “year outs” as advantages and yet there are other that feel that time could be used more beneficially.

One such person is Sandie Okoro, lead lawyer globally for international bank HSBC’s Global Assets Management says that a candidate that took a year off after school to travel abroad is much less desirable than one who worked on the weekends at a sports shop. Okoro further mentions that she appreciates real work experience compared to real world experience. Ultimately, though, you will probably never have the luxury or time and so few obligations to allow you to take a year out at any other point in your life.

Beyond all the other options I have mentioned in this article there are two more worth mentioning and analyzing which essentially gap the bridge between getting a job or going to university:

  • School Leavers Programs
  • Apprenticeships

Let’s take a look at each one separately.

#5 School Leavers Programmes

school leavers programmes

So what is a school leavers programme? Essentially it's an alternative for people capable of going to university. The idea is that school leavers can find jobs easier as they beat the sea of new graduates by 3 or 4 years. Known also as higher apprenticeships, school leavers programmes usually combine on the job training with training via an academic institution. Most major companies in the UK offer some sort of school leavers programme, including the BBC.

The BBC’s School Leavers Programme Features:

One great “scheme” is the BBC’s for budding journalists. It lasts for a total of 2 years combining working with radio production crews and studying at the Lambeth College located in London. This type of apprenticeship introduces you to the world of broadcasting, allowing you to either move on to the next tier of apprenticeship or find a job as an Assistant Producer with the BBC.


  • You don't have to worry about student debt.
  • You start to earn money straight after school.
  • The majority of programmes involve getting further professional qualifications or degrees that are paid for by the employer.
  • The programmes usually make it easier to secure a job with a leading company than if you had just got a degree.
  • A growing number of companies - big and small - are offering school leaver programmes because it is a very effective method of hiring and training employees.
  • After 3 - 4 years  you will typically end up at a similar or more advanced level than a normal graduate.


  • Not part of a national framework and can vary in quality.
  • You need to know what the company's expectations of you are.

#6 Apprenticeships


What is the difference between an apprenticeship and a school leaver’s programme? In most cases, they are actually interchangeable terms, but overall school leavers’ programmes are usually longer than apprenticeships. Although both apprenticeships and school leavers’ programmes involve acquiring knowledge on the job and off site, generally school leavers’ programmes involve getting this off-site education from institutions of higher education.

Another distinction between and apprenticeship and a school leavers programme is the way you receive your training. Generally, during an apprenticeship, you will work for four days a week and go to to a university, college or training center once a week to complete courses. When participating in a school leavers programme you will most likely attend university for a year, then receive your on-the-job-training and complete your qualifications via distance learning while continuing your work experience.

Apprenticeships are also part of a national framework because they have educational equivalency levels:

  • Intermediate or Level Two apprenticeships equate to five GCSE passes with a range between A*to C
  • Advanced or Level Three apprenticeships equate to two A Level GCSE passes
  • Higher or Level 4,5,6,7 apprenticeships equate to a Foundation degree or higher
  • Degree or 6,7 Level apprenticeships equate to Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s

Generally, the Requirements to Participate in an Apprenticeship Are:

  • Being at least 16 years of age
  • Being a Resident of the U.K.
  • Not enrolled in a full-time University course or another form of full-time education.

Applying for an Apprenticeship Is Extremely Straightforward and Simple:

  • Look for an apprenticeship which best fits both your wants, needs, and interests. The U.K.’s government website allows you to search for apprenticeships all over the England. You can search their database, but if you register on the government’s website not only can you track your applications you can also receive email and text notifications regarding them, it will also inform you about new apprenticeships in your field of interest.
  • Complete an application and submit it.

Apprenticeships Are Usually Categorized in These Fields/Sectors:

  • Construction, Planning and the Built Environment
  • Lesure, Travel, and Tourism
  • Agriculture, Horticulture, and Animal Care
  • Engineering and Manufacturing Technology
  • Education and Training
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Science and Maths
  • Arts, Media and Publishing
  • Business, Administration, and Law
  • Retail and Commercial Enterprise
  • Health, Public Service and Care

If you would like further information regarding the specific apprenticeships within each sector, you can find it on the U.K. government website here. According to the website, apprenticeships are available in 170 different industries and more than 1,500 jobs.

Before You Make Your Final Decision

school leavers overview

Now that you have a much deeper understanding of all the options available to you, don’t be hasty to make your final decision. Although everything career-wise is relatively reversible, entering an industry or job that you do not like, will affect your quality of life and your relationship with your family and friends and in extreme cases even your health.

An overview of what to consider:

Last Year Preparation

  • Use your time effectively
  • Have a plan
  • Take advantage of service for school leavers

Your Options

  • University
  • Vocational Training
  • Get a Job
  • Gap Year/Year Out
  • School Leavers Programs
  • Apprenticeships

Considerations When Choosing a Path/Option

  • What do you like to do?
  • What are your strengths, your weaknesses?
  • What lifestyle do you want after graduation/while employed/upon completion of the apprenticeship-school leaver's programme?

Before You Look For a Job

  • Decide on job
  • Create a CV
  • Job Search
  • Prepare for Interviews

School Leavers Programmes

  • Usually offered by larger companies like the BBC, Unilever, Nomura
  • Generally are the equivalent of higher education or foundations degrees
  • Involve both on-the-job experience and off-site training
  • Take 1-4 years to complete


  • Sometimes shorter than School Leavers Programs
  • Part of a national framework and have various corresponding educational levels from 1 to 7.
  • Involve both on-the-job experience and off-site training
  • Take 1-4 years to complete also

Useful Resources

Becoming an Apprentice

GOV.UK's Apprenticeships Guide

Apprenticeship Search Engine

GOV.UK's Apprenticeship Search

BBC Trainee schemes and apprenticeships

BBC's Apprenticeships & Schemes

Are you a school leaver and not sure what path to take? Has this guide made your path any clearer? Let us know in the comments section below...