What are school leaver programmes, apprenticeships and sponsored degrees?
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Apprenticeships offer a chance to work towards qualifications through an employer while earning, and usually take one to four years to complete. For example, you might work in an entry-level job for four days of the week, and study at an FE college or designated training centre on the fifth day. You are not guaranteed a job with your apprenticeship provider at the end of your apprenticeship but will have gained both experience and a nationally recognised qualification, so should be in a good position to find employment elsewhere if necessary.
There is an official national framework for apprenticeships, which sets out the level of qualification associated with different levels of apprenticeship. Employers can claim grants for offering apprenticeships and the system is overseen and regulated by the government.
There are currently four levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, advanced, higher and degree. They all involve a work-based learning programme and lead to nationally recognised qualifications.
Intermediate apprenticeships are level 2 qualifications and are equivalent to GCSE passes at grades A*–C. Advanced apprenticeships are level 3 qualifications and are equivalent to A level passes.
Higher apprenticeships lead to qualifications at level 4 and above. A degree apprenticeship involves gaining a university degree while you work (level 6 or above). If you're not sure what the levels mean:
- level 4/5 is equivalent to a higher education certificate, higher education diploma or a foundation degree (the first year of a degree)
- level 6 is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree
- level 7 is equivalent to a master’s degree
To get onto a higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship you’ll normally need a level 3 qualification such as an advanced apprenticeship, A levels or NVQ level 3. You’ll also need to have a level 2 qualification such as an intermediate apprenticeship or five good GCSE passes (grade A* to C).
The apprenticeship national minimum wage (NMW) from April 2017 is £3.50 an hour for apprentices aged 16–18 and apprentices aged 19 and over who are in their first year, less than the NMW for other employees of the same age. After the first year, apprentices aged over 19 are due the NMW for their age – currently either £5.60 (if you're 18 to 20) or £7.05 (if you're 21 to 24), though these figures are revised each April. However, many employers pay more than the NMW.
You can use the National Apprenticeships Service search tool to search for apprenticeships. However, if you are also interested in other types of school leaver opportunity, such as school leaver programmes or sponsored degrees, you should also use the TARGETcareers search and go to employers’ websites for further details.
School leaver programmes are normally aimed at students who plan to stay at school or college until they have finished level 3 qualifications such as A levels, rather than those who are looking to leave school after GCSEs. The term can be used to describe a broad range of different types of paid training scheme, and some employers refer to their higher apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships or sponsored degree programmes in this way.
Most school leaver programmes take three to four years and combine work with training, though some include a full degree as well as professional qualifications (such as achieving chartered accountant status) and these may be longer. They are typically offered by large businesses and organisations, particularly in retail, accountancy and banking but in plenty of other industries too.
There is no national framework for school leaver programmes and as the term is used in different ways by different employers, you need to check the detail of what is on offer carefully. Some school leaver programmes offer you a salary as well as covering tuition fees for a specified degree course; these are similar to sponsored degrees or degree apprenticeships. Others offer professional qualifications, sometimes at the same level as the standard qualifications taken by graduates seeking entry to a particular career.
You’ll come across references to both sponsored degrees and sponsored degree programmes on employer websites; there is no fixed, standardised definition of these terms, which are used in different ways by different employers. Broadly speaking, they refer to a degree programme associated with a particular employer, with financial support available for students selected by the employer.
The employer typically chooses the degree course because of its relevance for potential future employees and may play a part in designing the course content. The nature of the financial support on offer varies, as do the study arrangements and the extent of the employer’s involvement in the degree course.
Some employers pay a salary and cover tuition fees, while others offer a bursary and paid work placements. You could study for a sponsored degree via distance learning or on campus; depending on the programme, you might study for one or more days a week and work for the rest, or attend university as a full-time student and work for your employer during the holidays. You might be required to study a specific course at a specific university, or have a choice of universities or be able to apply for paid work and financial support regardless of your course of study.
An employer may offer a range of different options for school leavers who want to combine working for them with higher education, so make sure you take time to research what’s on offer.
In some sectors groups of businesses have worked together with universities and colleges to design degree apprenticeships, a government-backed scheme similar to sponsored degrees. The first degree apprenticeships were offered in England from September 2015. They are suitable for school leavers and involve a combination of traditional university study and paid work. Apprentices will gain a bachelors or masters degree and the cost of course fees is met by the government and employers. Degree apprenticeships are available in a range of engineering-related disciplines as well as in digital, banking relationship management and construction.
Make sure you do your research!
If you want to start your career with a big, sought-after employer, traditional university study leading to a degree is far from being the only way. School leaver programmes, higher apprenticeships and sponsored degrees offer a debt-free alternative, and you’ll find a range of them available in areas such as IT, engineering, finance and retail.
However, while there are plenty of brilliant salaried training schemes for school leavers out there, the process for applying for them is much less standardised and centralised than the system for applying to uni. You’re going to need to research the opportunities carefully and understand that different employers sometimes use key terms in slightly different ways when describing what they have to offer. Our advice on how to choose between work and uni and what to expect when you get there will help you work out the best path for you.
The route into every profession is different. In some cases the options open to non-graduates are relatively limited. For example, an undergraduate degree is a standard requirement for anyone who wants to go on to qualify as a teacher or solicitor. You can find out more from our advice sections on specific careers.