Whilst you can’t go too wrong when choosing what to study for GCSEs or IGCSEs, making the wrong choices post 16+ may lead you in a career direction you don’t really want to go. There are so many more things to consider when choosing your options at 16+, both academic and vocational. I know of many a student who has had to spend another year taking the courses they actually needed for their university choice or career path.

A good place to start planning your post-16 options is to think of these three questions:

  • Where am I now? (What qualifications, skills and interests do I have?)
  • Where do I want to get to? (What would I like to be doing in 5 years’ time – job, living away from home, etc?)
  • How will I get there? (What course, training or future job is likely to get me where I want to go?)

So how to make the right choice? Fortunately there is plenty of advice out there. CIFE colleges offer a fantastic range of courses and are available to respond to your enquiries all year round, unlike traditional schools. The course offering is as wide as the number of colleges who make up CIFE. Most offer the traditional two year A level course, some an 18 month or even a one year. In addition many offer one-year Foundation courses and BTECs. The small subtleties make all the difference, so you need to consider all the options very carefully. You need to consider where the type of course will lead you. For example, academic courses and vocational courses may lead you along very different career pathways. UK educators have spent decade arguing over the merits of an academic versus vocational career route. Neither is better or worse, just different. The reality is, you should choose the pathway that is most appropriate to you and the way you learn. We are not all academic learners; many of us are more successful as practical learners. Remember though, these decisions have the potential to affect the rest of your life.

For many students the main reason for studying A levels, BTECs or a Foundation course is to get to university. Approximately 45% of 16+ aged students go to university now. Thus the academic route is chosen by nearly half the student population. If this is the case for you then the best place to start is by checking which A level subjects are required for your degree course on the university websites and the UCAS site. If you are going straight into work after A levels or applying to be an apprentice look on the relevant websites. You need to consider yourself as the individual that you are. Being pushed into something you don’t want to do will never work in the long term. Do you want to join the services, fly for a commercial airline or teach History at university? All these options will demand very different decisions regarding your post 16+ choices.

Career Pilot is a good website to visit: https://www.careerpilot.org.uk/information/your-choices-at-16/help-with-choosing-your-post-16-options

Academic Route

Going down the academic route requires a particular focus on A level subject choices. Until recently the A levels you chose had a significant impact on whether you could get into a top university. The top 24 universities in the UK, called the Russell Group and whose members are world-class, research-intensive universities, have in the past preferred applicants who have studied certain ‘hard’ subjects. These subjects were previously called ‘facilitating subjects’ and include:

Mathematics and Further Mathematics, English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History, Languages (Classical and Modern).

There were also subjects not on this list, such as Economics, Geology and Religious Studies, that were also considered good preparation for university study but which were rarely a requirement for university entry.

Most successful applicants to Russell Group universities over the last couple of years have taken ‘facilitating subjects’ for most or all of their A levels, specific to their chosen degree courses. Applicants for Economics, for example, often have Economics A level, although this is not a requirement. Applicants for Music usually have Music A level, although Grade 8 theory also provides the necessary technical skills for the course. As many Science subjects as possible is useful for Science applicants and four Science/Maths A levels are frequently offered by candidates from schools that can teach such combinations. Sixty per cent of successful applicants over the last two years studied A level Maths, so this is a useful subject for the arts as well as the sciences, as is Chemistry, the second most popular A level. Languages (either modern languages or Greek or Latin) were also chosen by many applicants. History, English Literature, Physics, Further Mathematics and Biology were also popular choices. Economics and Politics were the top two choices outside the list of facilitating subjects. Successful applicants offered a total of about forty different A level subjects, as well as a range of subjects from the International Baccalaureate, Pre-U and other examination systems.

The Russell Group universities now produce a guide to post-16 study options called Informed Choices [https://www.informedchoices.ac.uk/ ]. This allows students to find out which subjects are required for entry into different degree courses or which degree courses would be available based on your selection of A level subjects. The site also provides general information for students considering university but who are unsure of which post-16 subjects or degrees to take. It would appear that in general Russell Group universities are being more open to a mix of A level choices.

Vocational Route

For many this will be an apprenticeship: a work placement, often paid, where you also spend some time at college learning about the theory or gaining further practical experience in a controlled working environment, similar to a science or D&T lab. You will also begin to hear about T Levels which are being introduced by a select number of providers at the moment. T Level programmes are substantial and high quality. They are likely to be equivalent in size to a three-A-level programme and will have more teaching time built in to enable students to acquire greater knowledge, skills and good working practice. T Levels will become one of three major options when a learner reaches the age of 16+, alongside apprenticeships and A levels. The City and Guilds College London is a good place to look for this type of course. https://www.cityandguilds.com/tlevels

For academic study beyond 16+ you could go to:

Sixth form school

  • If you’re already at a school with a sixth form, you could stay on – you already know the place, the teachers and your friends (who might stay on too).
  • It’s still worth looking at other schools – sixth forms vary in size, course choices and subjects, as well as extra activities and opportunities you might like.
  • Check whether they offer the courses you want – wherever you choose to go, make sure you’ll be studying subjects that interest you.

Sixth form college

  • Sixth form colleges can be more informal than school sixth forms.
  • They’re usually bigger but not always, and they can often offer you more study options.
  • You’ll get to make new friends from different schools.


For non-academic study you could go to:

  • A registered training provider offering a wide range of work-related training and qualifications, including NVQs, BTECs and apprenticeships.
  • Some specialist training institution focusing on particular sectors and job roles – such as construction, business administration, childcare or hair and beauty.
  • A training provider who works closely with employers offering work-based training as part of placements or employment.

Once you know what you want you may need to convince others that these are the right choices. This will depend on your particular circumstances. Firstly, your parents and/or educational advisors helping you and your family will need to be assured that your choices will lead to a successful career. Secondly, you will need to convince a school, college or other institution to accept you. Are your current grades, GCSEs or other school certificates good enough for the college and your course choices? Some CIFE colleges have high entry requirements – can you fulfill these? Wherever you go you will need the equivalent of a Mathematics and English GCSE grade 4 or higher, so prepare to repeat these if you don’t have them.

In summary the best choice of subjects and courses post 16 are those you enjoy, are good at and which will take you in a direction towards your preferred career. Your future is in your hands – make sure you make the right decisions based on some solid research.


This article was written by Dr Chris Drew, Cambridge Tutors College, London