Alternatives to CAO: Can they be a good first choice – even for high-points students?

Third-level is not the only option after the Leaving Cert – there are other opportunities out there

Once upon a time, going to college was the-be-all and end-all. What mattered was CAO points and the third-level college and course that a student got into. Post-Leaving Cert courses and apprenticeships were, at best, a second choice.

Alright, this isn’t a fairytale where the forgotten stepchild is suddenly beloved: for many, going to college is still all that matters. But the story is changing. Further education and training (FET) – comprised primarily of PLCs, apprenticeships and training courses – is creating more and more graduates every year, and they are going on to great things.

School-leavers, as well as mature students, are catching on that further education and other CAO alternatives are much more than a fallback.

The PLC sector


Ballyfermot College of Further Education has long since been the poster child for colleges of further education, and is particularly renowned for its courses in film, media, art and animation. Indeed, for many bright and ambitious people hoping to make their way in these industries, it's their go-to place.

"PLC programmes are often the first choice for students," says Cecilia Munro, principal of BCFE.

“PLC courses prepare students for either employment and or progression to further or higher education through the higher education links scheme or through advanced entry.”

PLCs can be a good option for a school-leaver who has come through the Leaving Cert and is daunted by the idea of choosing a course that could decide their future career. "Many school-leavers either choose or are encouraged to choose a third-level course that is really not for them based on the subjects they excel at in school preparing for a Leaving Certificate," says Munro. "In fact, subject choice for future careers is really made in sixth class, primary school, when students have to pick subject options in first year of secondary school. Think about it: choosing business over home economics will follow you to Junior Certificate and onto Leaving Certificate."

Students drop out of third-level for a variety of reasons, but there’s ample evidence to show the main one is that they do not like the course they have chosen. “How distressing that must be: to have studied for the Leaving Certificate, to apply through the CAO system, to sit exams and to realise two or four months after starting that this is not for me,” says Munro. “It affects everything, from self-confidence to grant applications to returning to education.”

Munro says PLC courses are a chance for school-leavers to take a year, grow as a person, and develop both soft and vocational skills. Irish school-leavers still tend to be reluctant to, as happens widely in the UK, take a gap year. Could a PLC year serve a similar purpose?

“You can learn to manage your time and your diary, learn communication and presentation skills, team working and independent thinking and critical analysis,” says Munro. “All of these skills will build your capacity for life and capacity for tackling a degree.”

There are some courses where a PLC programme is the main entry route. "For example, for aspiring beauticians there is no other educational programme that is recognised on the NFQ than a QQI level 5 or level 6 in the beauty industry other than a PLC programme. The beauty industry is one of the highest grossing industries monetary wise worldwide and many graduates have very successful, lucrative careers. Check out the beautician counters in BT's, Arnotts, Debenhams, Harvey Nichols – selling all the time."

It doesn’t stop there, says Munro. “Until recently, there were no degree programmes in animation and visual effects and students had to complete a PLC course to gain these skills for employment or progression to a further- or higher-education course in a related area.”

In addition, students are coming to FET to gain the skills to start their own business. “One of the most popular and hard to get into FET courses is animal care,” says Munro. “Graduates of this course learn how to groom a dog to breed standard and also learn the skills of canine obedience. The animal care industry, like the beauty care, industry is booming. These skills are not taught at third-level.”

What’s new in FET?

A review of PLC colleges and courses, commissioned from further education and training agency Solas from the Economic and Social Research Institute, shows the sector is experiencing a shift in student profile. Although the numbers are primarily comprised of school-leavers, the age profile is rising as students return to further education and training to find the skills they need for employment or progression.

In the last few years, the PLC sector has moved into Stem through offering courses like pre-university science (laboratory techniques) at Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute, dental nursing at Marino College of Further Education and physiotherapy at Coláiste Dhulaigh. In addition, Marino College of Further Education has recently completed an Erasmus project on developing a blended e-learning course, Westport College of Further Education offers the online Green Certificate in Agriculture level and Cavan Institute offers pre-university courses in mechatronics (electronics). In essence, if a student is interested in a certain career or profession, PLC courses offer an attractive option to gain an entry level qualification at NFQ level 5, with multiple options for educational progression.

Twenty per cent of all CAO entrants to higher education in Ireland in September 2019 will have come through a FET course. This does not include those who are over 23 and enter directly as mature students.

The apprenticeship sector: Earn and learn at the same time

Before the recession – at a time when most of today’s school-leavers weren’t even 10 – there were more than 20,000 apprentices. Then, the economy crashed, and the number of apprentices plummeted to just 1,200.

The near-collapse of apprenticeships seemed like a catastrophe at the time (coincidentally, it happened just as the old training agency, Fás, fell into disrepute and was disbanded). But it allowed the sector a chance to stop coasting and, instead, to fundamentally reimagine what an apprenticeship could be. From the ashes of Fás, Solas was born and, with it, a renewed emphasis on building up further education and training options for school-leavers and workers alike.

Growing numbers of students are drawn to apprenticeships because they go to third-level or further education at the same time as gaining valuable workplace experience that gives them an edge in the employment market – and, all the while, they earn a wage.

Shauna Dunlop, director of apprenticeships and work-based training at Solas, says apprenticeship numbers now stand at more than 16,000 and are rising.

“There are a lot of new and different apprenticeships than what was available even two or three years ago,” she says. “Now, apprentices can choose more familiar craft apprenticeships [such as carpentry, bricklaying or car mechanic] as well as newer options such as ICT, auctioneering, insurance and accounting.”

Some PLC colleges are working with the education and training boards (ETBs) and management bodies to provide apprenticeships. These include an apprenticeship in ICT at Killester College, a commis chef apprenticeship at Coláiste Dhulaigh in Finglas. Others involve classes on institute of technology campuses, such as the insurance practitioner apprenticeship at IT Sligo.

The profile of the average apprentice is also changing, Dunlop says. "The majority are still school-leavers, but there are also people who are seeking a career change. The number of females is rising too. Admittedly, it is still small, but we are trying to highlight how apprenticeships are for anyone, irrespective of gender."

What else might hold a potential apprentice from signing up to the course? “Some people still have an idea that apprenticeships are just glorified work experience, but that perception is changing,” says Dunlop. “At our Ireland Skills Live event held last March, over 15,000 students passed through the doors over three days, and we spoke to lots of young people and families about what apprenticeships can offer them. Young people are seeing that apprenticeships can be so much more than just a fallback option: for many, they’re a first choice.”

Find out more about the range of available apprenticeships:

Training: Short courses for a valuable first step on the career ladder

Traineeships offer a midway point between jumping straight into the workplace after school and going to college. These are, typically, short courses of between six and nine months; at the end, students gain a QQI award (usually around level 5).

Traineeships provide on-the-job learning in areas including animal care, office administration, bartending, digital journalism and more. They are all delivered through the education and training boards.

These courses are all free but employers do not usually offer a wage.

For more on traineeships, see The Irish Times Smart Choices supplement, which will be published on Monday, August 19th.