Written By Isabelle McIntyre
Just as September is associated with new beginnings and a new academic year, the months of May and June are inextricably linked to exam season and bittersweet endings. After weeks of revision and rigorous tests, most students feel relief and excitement at the prospect of a stress-free summer, traditionally full of rites of passage such as festivals and holidays with friends. Inevitably, however, this period in a young person’s life also raises lots of difficult questions.
I remember feeling really upset about leaving school forever – it was a place I genuinely loved, where I got to see my friends every day and be sheltered from the big, bad ‘real world’ that we were supposedly being prepared for. Suddenly (and rather anticlimactically) leaving it one afternoon in June quickly made me realise what a bubble education had been for me whilst growing up. I felt almost dizzying freedom at no longer having a daily routine and strict timetable laid out for me every day, with no one telling me exactly what to do next.
The prospect of hacking out a path for myself through the jungle of post-school options was daunting to say the least. Combined with the pressure from peers who seemed to have it all figured out, worries about grades and clearing, financial concerns and lack of support from schools, it’s easy to see why finishing Sixth Form can dredge up a range of emotions for 17- and 18-year-olds.
Of course, it is important to note whilst looking back on my experience last year, that the current Year 13’s are in completely different circumstances. The education sector was unfortunately not exempt from the havoc caused by coronavirus and the ensuing lockdowns, and the last few years have seen huge disruption to examinations and end-of-year processes.
The 2020 cohort had their exams completely cancelled after nearly 2 years of A-Level prep and were sent home for good without so much as a goodbye, never mind a prom or results day. Remember the infamous ‘algorithm’ that decided their futures? My year, Class of 2021, had to endure experimental self-teaching and video lessons through two years of on and off lockdowns in order to take a set of exams based on a school-by-school basis that helped gauge ‘Teacher Assessed Grades’. The highlights of this included filling in a government questionnaire about the nature, content, and weighting of these ‘exams’ whilst simultaneously attempting to prepare for them. A mess from start to finish.
This year, the 2022 cohort face the first attempt to return to ‘normal’ and sit nationwide exams, albeit with some adjustments. Longer exam periods, reduced content, and special consideration for students with long covid all aim to mitigate the effects of the disastrous and widespread effects of the pandemic on teaching. Nonetheless, 82 per cent of headteachers have reported that stress and anxiety are higher than before the pandemic, according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders. This could also be amplified by the fact that the current Year 13’s never sat GCSE’s and thus have not experienced this level of examination before.
The routes after school are changing as well. Gap years are looking more expensive than ever following the economic damage to the travel and tourism industries during Covid-19, and universities are looking to cap numbers via the introduction of minimum entry threshold, meaning 48% of disadvantaged students in the UK would be ineligible for a student loan. Finishing high school is starting to look more bitter than sweet all of a sudden.
In an attempt to alleviate some anxiety for Year 13’s feeling lost whilst figuring out their next move, I’ve interviewed a range of people all doing different things after school. Hopefully this can highlight the variety of fulfilling, worthwhile and enjoyable paths available as you take the first into adult life without the safety net of school under you. It’s not so bad after all!
I’m… at university.
The pros of this include… having more independence than living at home, making new friends, and having fun as it’s very sociable.
The highlight has been… always having something fun to do and never being bored.
The cons of this include… the lifestyle of going out a lot is quite unhealthy so I’m ill more often and don’t eat the best, plus the uni kitchen was really gross to live in.
The lowlight has been… switching between home and university because it’s always hard to adjust to the different lifestyles.
My next few years look like… doing a master’s degree probably and going travelling or working abroad before getting a job, I’m not 100% on what I want to do yet.
I would recommend this path to someone thinking about it because… I’ve loved it so far, even though parts of it are challenging its such a good experience.
In regard to leaving school last year, I felt… very stressed with the exam situation because it was all up in the air and uncertain.
The advice I would give to current Year 13’s is… as anxious as you might feel trying to figure it out, there is no pressure to decide straight away, it’s just important to give something new a chance.
I’m… doing a Level 6-degree apprenticeship to become a RICS Chartered Surveyor which involves working 4 days and doing online university work 1 day a week.
The pros of this include… having no student debt yet still getting a degree whilst gaining valuable experience, in less time than a typical route, and making myself the most attractive to an employer as possible.
The highlight has been… a meeting with the CEO of UK and Ireland following some work I did in Birmingham which got my name recognised.
The cons of this include… with a full time 9-5 and only 25 days of annual leave it is sometimes hard to socialise with friends who are on different timescales at uni eg doing weekday nights out.
The lowlight has been… settling into a new city on my own after relocating for the job, it was hard realising how much I’ve grown up and knowing I’ll never live in my family home again.
My next few years look like… finishing my Real Estate Management degree and sitting my exams to become a RICS Chartered Surveyor, then working my way up in the business. It’s nice not to have to worry about the next step as it’s mostly laid out for me.
I would recommend this path to someone thinking about it because… it is an amazing path that allows the best of both worlds of having fun on the weekends whilst getting a degree and a salary.
In regard to leaving school last year, I felt… ready to leave school and education and move on to something new, especially because the grades I needed were relatively low and achievable, so I didn’t have that exam stress like most university students.
The advice I’d give to current Year 13’s is… to ignore what schools say about university, its not for everyone and there are so many other pathways to success. Taking some time out between school and university can help you understand yourself and your interests better in order to figure out what is most beneficial for you in the long run.
I’m… travelling and working to save money when I’m at home – so far, I’ve backpacked Thailand for 6 weeks and I’m setting off interrailing next week.
The pros of this include… earning my own money and having more financial freedom and getting more independence as I’ve been getting life experience outside of a school environment and my immediate friends.
The highlight has been… travelling around Thailand, experiencing the culture, and seeing the most amazing jungles, beaches and wildlife.
The cons of this include… the fact that balancing working full time and a social life is quite tiring but in general working is quite rewarding as I have a goal to focus my earning on.
The lowlight has been… feeling like I’m missing out on the uni lifestyle and not being able to relate to all my friend’s experiences, and sometimes second guessing my choice or feeling stuck but this quickly passes when I visit or text them.
My next few years look like… doing whatever makes me happy – hopefully lots more travelling but I don’t think I’m a person who need the next 10 years laid out, I prefer going with the flow of whatever makes me happy.
I would recommend this path to someone thinking about it because… as soon as you leave school you realise there isn’t actually this huge pressure to decide anything or go to university like it feels at the end of sixth form. Personally, I couldn’t recommend travelling enough as I’ve learnt so much about myself and other cultures.
In regard to leaving school last year I felt… relieved about not having to do proper exams because I knew I wasn’t going to university so it seemed pointless stressing about them. However, I was also nervous about leaving because I was doing something different to my friends, which was also lonely at times because no one could relate to my future plans.
The advice I’d give to current Year 13’s is… don’t feel like you have to know what you want to do for your whole life at 18, just give yourself the opportunity to consider all the possible paths rather than jumping into a route you’re unsure about or just doing because everyone else is.
I’m… doing a gap year before university.
The pros of this include… developing social skills and my confidence outside of a school environment and being able to earn money to save for the future.
The highlight has been… enjoying my evenings and weekends without any academic stress or guilt of school/uni work.
The cons of this include… not always being free when friends came home from uni, watching friends go off and do other things can be tough at times especially as working is so non-stop.
The lowlight has been… feeling like my life hasn’t changed very much in the last year.
My next few years look like… going to university to study something I’m really interested in and feeling much more confident and excited than I did a year ago. After I might do a masters or law conversion as an add on to my degree.
I would recommend this path to someone thinking about it because… I think it’s really important to take things at your own pace and process big changes in your life, especially if you suffer with anxiety. Taking a gap year to properly think about my options definitely helped it become a positive decision rather than a rushed anxious one.
In regard to leaving school last year, I felt… quite sad to leave but mostly stressed at the lack of control we had over our grades and the outcome of our exams.
The advice I’d give to current Year 13’s is… to remember that a year is a really long time and things can change so you don’t need to have everything sorted the minute you leave the exam hall.
I’m… working full time.
The pros of this include… getting a routine back where I can balance more things, spending more time with my family, having the chance to work on myself. Meeting new people of different ages and backgrounds through work has also inspired me to consider different paths I hadn’t considered or heard about before.
The highlight has been… Meeting new people of different ages and backgrounds through work which inspired me to consider different paths I hadn’t considered or heard about before.
The cons of this include… not having a safety net like school or university to turn to for support and the change to adult life can feel quite dramatic as you have to start taking responsibility for things like managing your money.
The lowlight has been… feeling left out or missing out on what other people are doing.
My next few years look like… going on to do an art and design diploma for a year. I’m not sure what I want to do yet but hopefully this will give me more insight into the area of art I want to pursue and specialise in.
I would recommend this path to someone thinking about it because… I’ve grown so much as a person over the last year by giving myself space to enjoy my hobbies and interests and figure out where I can go with them, which I wasn’t able to do at school
In regard to leaving school last year, I felt… quite numb because we were so unmotivated by the end, and just upset that we never got the sixth form experience and opportunity to sit exams like we should’ve got.
The advice I’d give to current Year 13’s is… don’t put too much pressure on yourself despite what teachers and parents might say, just enjoy this time period whilst you can. No one knows what they’re doing, people are still changing careers and retraining at 50+.