Publication - Research and analysis

Young people's experience of education and training

Published: 28 Sep 2017

Report on young people's experience of their learner journey from the age of 15-24 years.

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Young people's experience of education and training
5. Key findings: Decisions and transitions

5. Key findings: Decisions and transitions

Chapter summary

  • The first key decision point in young people's learner journeys is when they make subject choices in secondary school. These were reported to be based mainly on things they enjoyed or were good at rather than a career plan .
  • For young people planning to go to college or university, the decision of what stage to leave school is usually based on when they expect to have achieved the qualifications required and secured a place.
  • There was reported to be good support available within schools to complete college and university application forms, but less adequate support available to help young people decide for which subjects and courses to apply.
  • For those going on to college, apprenticeships or employment, decisions about the next steps are often based on what is available locally at the time they are looking.
  • Taking time out of formal education can provide an opportunity for young people to think about what they want to do, travel, explore different options and develop their confidence. However, this is often not a realistic or practical option for those who are not being financially supported by their parents or who are in poverty.
  • A lot of young people report challenges securing full-time employment and negative early experiences of the world of work, including insecure employment, zero hours contracts and poor pay and conditions.


5.1 This section considers the key decision points in young people's learner journeys and the support available to help them navigate and transition between each stage covering subject choices, leaving school, first destinations, transitioning to the next stage and moving into employment.

Subject choices

The first key decision point in young people's learner journeys is when they make subject choices in secondary school.

5.2 Most of the young people participating in the workshops made their first set of subject choices in second year of high school (aged 13/14), which determined the subjects they would be taking for the next two years. In most cases, decisions were reported to have been based on things that they enjoyed or were good at, rather than on a career plan.

5.3 The next set of subject choices come in fourth year, when young people select which subjects to study in fifth and potentially also sixth year. These usually (but not always) involve progressing a selection of subjects taken in fourth year to a more advanced level. There were a couple of examples provided of where young people had selected subjects that they had not studied previously at this stage, but this often proved challenging as they lacked a basic grounding in the subject and felt behind the rest of the class.

5.4 The subject options available to young people to take during fifth and sixth year was cited by some participants as a positive feature of the Scottish education system as it enables them to "keep their options open" with the potential to study up to ten subjects over the two years. Related to this, some reported that sixth year offered a second chance to those who do not get the grades they are expecting (or hoping for) in fifth year. However, others felt that the continued focus on school subjects and exams in the final two years of school was too inflexible and that there needs to be a greater range of options available to help prepare them for the next stage.

Young people would like more time and support for subject choices, including guidance on the implications of different choices on career options.

5.5 Several workshop participants said that they would have liked more time to make subject choices as the process often felt rushed. This was particularly true for young people suffering from anxiety or other mental health conditions, who were more likely to worry about making the right decision. They would also have liked more detailed advice and guidance on the implications of these choices on what they would be able to do next, including information on what jobs are related to which subjects.

"It would have been good to have more time to choose my subjects – it all felt very rushed." Christian, aged 17.

"It would have been good to know about college courses and entry requirements before making my subject choices." Donna, aged 19.

5.6 Some young people reported a tension between choosing subjects that they enjoyed versus those offering better career opportunities. For example, workshop participants reported a strong push on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths ( STEM) subjects within schools, even in cases when they were not a good fit for an individuals' skills and interests. This was said to be resulting in some young people selecting STEM subjects, but then dropping them midway through the academic year. In other cases, young people had to go against the wishes of the school in order to pursue the subjects in which they were interested. Related to this, several young people cited the need to be pro-active, resilient and determined as being key to progressing successfully in their learner journey.

"I decided to study advanced music in sixth year (piano and bass guitar) rather than science as this was my interest." Megan, aged 20.

5.7 The online resources available to young people to help inform subject choices (including My World of Work and Planit Plus) were reported as being informative and useful by several participants who had gone (or were planning to go) to university or who had a clear idea about what they wanted to do. They were referenced much less frequently by those who were pursuing other pathways or who were unsure about what they wanted to do. Of those that found them useful, most said that they would have also have liked the opportunity to discuss their options with someone who was knowledgeable about the career pathway that they were looking to pursue.

Leaving school

For young people planning to go to college or university, the decision of what stage to leave school is usually based on when they expect to have achieved the qualifications required and secured a place.

5.8 Most of the young people who had gone (or were planning to go) to university reported knowing from a young age that this was the route they wanted to go on. As referenced elsewhere in this report, this was often not a conscious decision – it was assumed by teachers and careers advisers that they would go to university if they performed well academically. Feedback on the application process for university was very positive. The UCAS system was described as straightforward, clear and easy to navigate. Schools were also reported to be very familiar with the system, meaning that they are able to offer guidance and support to young people with this.

5.9 College was viewed as the preferred secondary option for those who did not meet the conditions to go to university immediately on leaving school, sometimes with a view to getting the required qualifications to enable them to progress to university later. Related to this, several participants cited good links between colleges and universities as having helped them to progress in their learner journey. Apprenticeship opportunities were reported as being very rarely discussed with those who chose to stay in school past fourth year, with the assumption being that they were on a university pathway (either directly or through college).

5.10 College was also reported as being the preferred option presented to those who wanted to leave school before the end of the senior phase. Several workshop participants reporting being 'forced' to complete college application forms before being 'allowed' to leave school, despite making it clear that they had no intention of taking a place if successful. This experience was widespread and came up in all of the workshops involving young people who had left school before the end of the senior phase.

For those going to university, course choices were usually based on personal interests and subjects that young people enjoyed rather than a long-term career plan.

5.11 Feedback from the workshops suggests that there is a lot of support available within schools to complete college and university application forms, including personal statements. However, there seemed to be less adequate support available to help young people decide which subjects and courses to apply for and the advice that is provided is sometimes at odds with what young people want to do.

Kerri, aged 24, University Student

Kerri was identified by her school as someone who would do well in science and the school expected her to continue studying this at university. However, Kerri hated the subject and preferred arts and humanities. She made the decision to study history at university – a decision that was against the wishes of her school. She explained that the school was "shocked" that she applied to study history. She is happy with her decision, but recognises that it required extra effort and courage on her part to go against the school and study a subject that she enjoyed.

5.12 Young people reported feeling that it was important to choose subjects that they were going to like given that they could be studying them for up to four years. At this stage, most were not thinking about what opportunities will be open to them at the end – that still felt too far in the future. In this way, university was a means of deferring entry to the labour market and decisions relating to this.

Rebecca, 24, PhD student

Rebecca always knew that she wanted to go to university, but struggled to decide what to study and what classes to take when she got there. She decided to study psychology simply because it looked interesting (she had no experience of studying the subject before applying). As it turns out, Rebecca enjoyed the subject and has continued to study it at postgraduate level – she is now completing a PhD in psychology. Although the subject choice worked out well for her, she recognises that it was not an informed choice.

5.13 The main exceptions to this are when young people have a fixed idea about exactly the type of job they want to do and the routes into this are clear and easy to navigate. These are usually traditional occupations and professions with well-established career pathways.

Abby, 15, School Pupil

Abby wants to be a dentist when she is older. She selected subjects for her National 5 exams based on the entry requirements for the course. She excels at school and achieved high marks in her prelims, which she hopes she can maintain in the final exams in May. She plans to study Highers and Advanced Highers in 6th year before going to Dundee University to study dentistry.

For young people pursuing more technical or vocational routes, decisions are often based on what is available locally at the time they are looking.

5.14 Most young people pursuing technical or vocational routes after school tend to make decisions based the options that are available locally. These tend to be short-term and transient – something to do now – rather than as part of a career plan or a stepping stone towards a goal. This can lead to a series of 'false starts' before they manage to settle on something that they enjoy.

"I attended college for a year training to be a chef. It turns out the industry wasn't for me. I then worked in several jobs – in a restaurant, a call centre and then for a landscaping company. I have now applied to be a funeral arranger, but have also applied for an MA in Carpentry and Joinery. I have wasted so much time since leaving school not knowing what I wanted to do and chopping and changing my mind." Abbie, aged 19.

"I left school at 15 to go to work in a hairdresser. I didn't like it and started looking at college courses to get into childcare. With help from my old guidance teacher (who gave me a recommendation), I got a place on a Level 2 Introduction to Caring for Children and the Elderly. However, I was frustrated that I was mainly learning about caring for the elderly and not children. I left after 8 months as I didn't feel it was benefiting me. I decided that I would like to get into working in retail and got a Level 2 qualification working in a charity shop, where I still volunteer now and again. I did this for two years and completed my apprenticeship. After this, I still had a desire to work with children and applied for a childcare apprenticeship. I am now in my second year and am enjoying it." Megan, aged 20.

Taking time out of formal education can help young people to think about what they want to do, travel, explore different options and develop their wider skills and confidence.

5.15 A small number of workshop participants reported that they had delayed the decision of what to do next by taking time out of formal education. In all cases, this was reported to have had a positive impact, both on their personal and social development and in helping them to decide on the next steps.

"I took a year out after school to deal with my health issues. After this, I was ready to focus on what I wanted to do next." Ashleigh, aged 20.

"After college, I didn't feel ready for university and so went to Cambodia to volunteer for three months. I still wasn't ready for university and didn't know what I wanted to do. I moved to Milan for a year to do au pair work and learn Italian. I came back and started an engineering apprenticeship…. Taking the time out helped me to make the right decision for me." Gemma, aged 22.

"I want to go to university, but I'm not sure what to study. I chose science, but then changed to humanities. I have deferred entry to university for a year to take a scholarship in China. This will give me more time to make my decision." Ana, aged 17.

"Going travelling is the best thing I have done in my life." Kirsty, aged 24.

5.16 As part of the ice-breaker task as the start of each workshop, participants were asked to write down something that they wanted to do in life. The most common response across all of the workshops was to "travel the world". This suggests that many young people would welcome the opportunity to take time out of the 'system' to have new experiences. However, this is not a practical or realistic option for most young people who are not being financially supported by their parents or who are in poverty.

Transitioning to the next stage

When young people are approaching the end of their first destination from school, there are more decisions to be made about what to do next.

5.17 For young people completing apprenticeships, there is an assumption is that they will continue in the same occupation or industry having achieved industry-recognised qualifications and experience. However, this is far from guaranteed and many of the workshop participants reported that they had changed course at the end of their apprenticeship and decided to pursue other options. Again, this was often driven by the opportunities that were available locally at the time.

5.18 As referenced earlier in this report, a lot of young people who go to university defer consideration of labour market options until the latter stages of their degree. The exceptions to this are those who have a clear idea of what they want to do from the outset of their course. The sample of young people who had completed a degree was small, but most said that their exploration of options for what to do next was self-directed rather than guided by university teaching or careers staff. However, at least one participant described the support they had received through the university careers centre as being 'very helpful'.

5.19 For the young people that participated in the workshops, college was often viewed as a 'stepping stone' to other destinations. For example, it is often used by young people to 'top-up' the qualifications required for entry to university or apprenticeships. It is also used to get the qualifications required for particular jobs. In these cases, the desired next steps are clear, but are dependent on the opportunities being available.

5.20 In some cases, completion of a college course can enable entry to second year of university. However, a couple of the workshop participants reported that, when presented with that option, they chose not to take it. The reasons related to concern that they might find themselves behind the rest of the class on core subjects, and that missing out on the social elements of first year (such as freshers' week) would make it harder for them to fit in and make friends.

Moving into employment

A lot of young people find it difficult to get full-time employment and many report negative early experiences of the world of work.

5.21 The challenges faced by young people trying to secure full-time employment was a key topic of discussion during the workshops. Many participants' early experiences of the world of work were negative, with some reporting that they felt they had been (or were being) exploited or unfairly treated by employers. Examples included not being paid what they had been promised, not being given holiday pay, being made redundant with little or no notice or explanation and extended work experience placements with no guarantee of a job at the end. Zero hours' contracts were also prevalent amongst this age group, which make it difficult to make financial plans or live independently.

5.22 Erin, aged 18, Unemployed

5.23 Erin left school at 16 and got a job straight away in retail. He loved his job and was good at it, achieving all of his sales targets and getting on well with customers. Erin was given a lot of responsibility and was pleased at being trusted enough to have a set of keys for the shop. However, the business was not doing well and he was made redundant. Since then, he has had a few short-term and zero hours contracts, but has been unable to find secure employment. He misses work and having a routine.

Lack of work experience is a key barrier to young people getting jobs.

5.24 Young people on employability programmes, or not in employment, education or training, were sometimes submitting upwards of 30 job applications per week and not hearing anything back. These types of open job applications were perceived as being a waste of time for those with few qualifications and limited work experience. A more successful route to securing opportunities was said to be through connections made through employability programmes (rather than the programme itself) and targeted work experience placements.

"I couldn't get a job or an apprenticeship after leaving school. My friend told me about this course and here I am 10 weeks later. I have gained work experience, which will be good for my CV, as well as a good reference." Ray, aged 18.

"My work experience placement has given me a lot of hope and confidence for the future." Josh, aged 22.

5.25 Similarly, the challenges faced by college and university leavers in securing full-time employment often related to a lack of relevant work experience. A couple cited unpaid graduate internships as a means to getting this experience. However, these were described as " exploitative and wrong" and not a feasible option for those who were not being financially supported by their parents.


Email: Lorraine Forrester,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road