In 2014, I left school with average GCSEs, and I was really looking forward to the rest of my life. Except, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The idea of becoming a teacher had floated around my head since I was 14, but I wasn’t really sure what subject I’d want to teach – or even liked that much to want to teach it.

My Religious Education teacher inspired me the most so I thought that might be a good career path, although, I had played around with the idea of maybe a Food Tech teacher, or a Hospitality and Catering teacher, as Catering was another idea I was into because my Grandma had her own Catering business while my mum was a child.

I loved to dance, but I had failed my GCSE due to a medical condition that wasn’t excused during the marking, (and the fact I just don’t do well in exams), and I couldn’t be bothered to pursue it if it was going to be the same genre (genre? type?) of dance I had to learn for GCSE. I could spell Tchaikovsky, and thought ballet was beautiful, but I had given up with the idea of dance being a career path after my doctor had told me it wouldn’t be possible, and I didn’t enjoy being compared to dancers and gymnasts that had been dancing their whole lives.

All in all, I was clueless. I have regrets now – I wish I took French, Hair and Beauty or Media. I enjoyed Hospitality and Catering and Food Technology, as I said before, but I don’t know why I bothered with Dance and Drama when I knew it wasn’t something I even wanted to pursue. I think giving the choice to 14 year olds on what they want to study, and have as a qualification for the rest of their life is tough, and more time and effort needs to go into making sure that the child knows what they want, or has an idea of what they want. GCSEs are meant to be this big thing that affect you for the rest of your life, but I’ve never had to pull out my B in Catering at any point during any of the courses I’ve joined, or any of the interviews I’ve completed.

‘BTECs were bad, and the local vocational college wasn’t going to help me succeed’. It was something we were all told and when you look up to teachers telling you to go for A-Levels, it’s just what you do. I always, always, always say to people now, “don’t do what your parents want, don’t go where your friends are going, look into other options and do what you want” because sometimes I wish I didn’t listen to have the class who belittled BTECs (for some reason, this is still a trend?) because maybe I wouldn’t have wasted half a year of my life pretending to be something I’m not – academic.

I won’t even mention the pathway for apprenticeships because I had no idea apprenticeships even existed until I joined mine in 2016.

So I went to a sixth-form and studied four A-Levels, which looking back now makes no sense whatsoever – Business (something to fall back on, I suppose), RE (because of the teacher), IT (because I like computers and technology – this could be a foreshadow) and English Language (I love(d) creative writing). Needless to say, I hated every single second of studying A-Levels, and just as I failed my mocks, I dropped out.

Unfortunately, at this point, I was still being fed the lies and dramatics of the local vocational college not being ideal and not being what I needed. So I avoided it for a while. But then I realised, “I need to actually do something with my life” and sitting around all day, then going to a part-time cleaning job isn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

So I decided to apply for Computer Science, however, coincidentally an old friend of mine had reached out and mentioned she planned to apply for the vocational college, also. We talked about it a lot, and I found out she had dropped out of the sixth-form a few months before I did and was looking to start something new in September. She also told me she was applying to study Games Development at the local vocational college that I was in the process of potentially applying to.

There was a Games Development course.

With no exams.

Completely hands-on and learning.

???

Now, if you know me, I love playing games. It’s actually one of my favourite things in the world and I can’t think of a better past-time than to slide a disc into a console and lose hours immersing yourself into a fictional world with your favourite characters. To me, gaming is like reading, but you get to choose (kind of) what happens next.

So, yeah, maybe I went in with the wrong intentions (to play games), but studying a BTEC and attending that vocational college was the best thing I have ever done in my life. I loved studying Games (although, as you may have noticed, I didn’t go into the games industry), I loved the people, the lecturers, the atmosphere and the learning. I felt safe, I felt at home, I felt a new confidence I had never had, and I felt, for the first time ever in education, that I actually wanted to be there.

I remember going through the little booklet of all the available courses at the vocational college and then just pushing it aside when I was in year 11 choosing my next steps after secondary school. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I read it. BTECs are often seen as an ‘easier’ or ‘less academic’ route because of the no exams, hands-on approach, but all it is, is just another style of learning. I can’t sit there and soak up information, then regurgitate it onto an exam paper. I like to learn, I like to experience, I like to be there, I like to problem solve, collaborate, and get creative. When I got to the college, I learned in a new way that fit me, I had support, I had friends, and I had a future. I wish I hadn’t listened to friends and teachers who told me to follow the academic route, I wish I had more information on other routes, like apprenticeships, vocational learning, etc.

A BTEC gives you a clear route into a employment. You can choose your subject and excel in it over two years (or maybe three if you choose to do a level 2) and in that time, you gain more valuable experience in the area or industry you love than you’ll ever get in a classroom copying notes from a board (sorry if that’s your thing). It’s hands-on, which means you’re actually doing it. If you apply for a painting course, you bet you’re going to be painting. You applied for Media? You will learn the magic behind the media industry, create a podcast, film a short film, learn to use a camera, be in the moment. Our Hair and Beauty students work on real clients which supports them starting work in local salons. I loved my Games course because I got a feel for all of the ‘sub tiers’ in the industry: concept art, digital art, sound, games design, testing, development, software, human resources, and more. I got to experience each area, gain relevant industry experience and apply all of my practical knowledge and skills in the real world after my course.

Although, I didn’t stick to the games industry and was very lucky to start an apprenticeship in creative digital media, I loved my time and I loved being able to focus on just one thing. A few of my coursemates actually went on to either work in the games industry directly from completing the BTEC, whereas others highered their studies at university. The effort you put into completing the BTEC will shine through and being able to gain valuable experience within the industry is great for your CV and getting you into the door of some great companies.

Some people may say that you won’t be able to go to university without A-Levels, and while some career paths may be difficult as you may need combined qualifications, the majority of the time, your BTEC will get you into university. I do not have a single A-Level in my qualifications and still managed to get an unconditional in one of the top 20 universities in the UK. Not bad for someone who had no career prospects just five years ago.

So if you’ve collected your GCSE results and you’re looking where you want to go next, make sure you consider all possible options, from studying at a vocational college, a sixth form, or an apprenticeship.

This is probably one of my longest blog posts ever, so if you’ve stuck around this long, thank you for listening to me ramble on about my odd education history!

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash