An alternative route to university

If you follow Scottish island mum on facebook you already know that we have just had some very good news.  George (our third child) is 17 and wants to go to the University of Highlands and Islands to study a BA in Adventure Tourism.  His route to university is non-standard in that it has not involved GCSEs/Standards or A levels/Highers so we approached the programme leader so see if his alternative qualifications would be accepted.  The programme leader kindly revised not only his qualifications but his entire profile to include his Duke of Edinburgh work, voluntary and work experience and confirmed that he would not hesitate to off him a place.  Obviously we still have the UCAS process to get through but knowing that his qualifications will be accepted was very important confirmation.

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I know that many followers of Scottish island mum are very interested in our home schooling journey so I promised a detailed breakdown of George’s route to university.  It is important to say that there are many qualifications out there and the world of distance learning has exploded in recent years.  However, my time as an academic allows me the inside track on university admission policies so I am hoping to pass that on.  The UCAS site itself has lots of excellent advice and I would highly recommend keeping a close eye on it as both the Scottish system and now the English/Welsh system at 16plus is subject to so much change.

What has not changed is the spine of the qualifications system which is presented as a framework.  For England and Wales that is the National Qualification Framework (NQF) and for Scotland that is the Scottish Qualification Framework (SQF).  If you want your child to take distance learning or online courses rather than the ones offered in schools check if these courses are accredited by these frameworks.  More importantly, at what level.  For university entry youngsters in England and Wales need to be studying at level 3 and in the Scottish framework it is level 6.  Typically universities will be looking for 3 A levels or 4/5 Highers.  Grades for both are converted into UCAS points with most universities asking for a total points value.  However, this is shifting as well as more and more universities open up a non-tariff entry meaning that passes within a certain level e.g A-C is sufficient.  University of Highlands and Islands is one of these universities and you can read about their admission policy HERE.  

Let us focus on George’s route by way of an example –

It is important to note that George is a very bright young man (known as the brainbox in our family) so this would not work for everyone.  

GCSE/Standards (level 2 on the NQF)

Most universities ask for at least maths and English

George obtained his maths level 2 from Stonebridge College Basic Maths course (accredited by NQF at level 2)

English level 2 from the Open Study College

He did not do any further level 2s.  The reason for this is that level 2 subjects are a gateway to level 3 and he was more than capable of operating at level 3 so he moved up to that level as soon as he had achieved his level 2s.

At level 3 on the NQF (equivalent to A level)

He has almost completed a level 3 diploma in Animal Care with Stonebridge College

His next level 3 diploma is in Tourism Management from Stonebridge College

That will give him the equivalent of 2 A levels.  That is enough for entry into his university course.  However he is additionally taking –

Higher Digital Photography with Argyll College in a satellite campus based on the island.  He thinks this course will be useful for a career working outdoors.

This means he will actually have more qualifications than are required.

The advantage of this route for George is that he has been able to study at his own pace, in his own time and in his own home.  The photographer higher will give him time with other students which will be useful as well.  With most distance learning courses there are no exams as they are assessed throughout the course.  Once our children leave full time home schooling with us they sign up with a particular college and are assigned a tutor and we take a much more back seat.  All of our children have learnt a super range of study skills through distance learning and they have all done very well on all their courses.

Now this is an important bit.

I know from processing literally thousands of UCAS applications at my time at the University of Winchester that lecturers look to the whole profile of the applicant not just their qualifications.  What they do additionally to their qualifications is of EQUAL value.

Focusing back on George.

George has just completed his Bronze award with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and for those of you not familiar with the scheme it has four components –

Development of a –

  • physical skill (badminton for George)
  • Life skill (baking for George)
  • Volunteering skills (community shop for George)
  • Expedition skills (2 day hike with overnight camp for George)

Universities rate the Duke of Edinburgh scheme very highly indeed.  But any applicant who has relevant skill building and work experience will be valued. George is currently gaining invaluable work experience with the island farm park.   Additionally, George has worked for international charities since he was 13 and for his silver Duke of Edinburgh award he is working with Oxfam on their Youth Ambassador Programme.  Also for his silver he is learning to kayak.

You can see a picture of George emerging and so will a university lecturer as they review his application.  His Personal Statement will also have to be excellent but he is arguably fortunate to have me in his corner to help with that.  By the way I do offer that service free to other young people – more details HERE.

Immediately, I think we see two things.  George does not have as many qualifications as most young people his age but what he does have (or will have) are very targeted and predominately at level 3 on the NQF.

The second thing is that he has a profile that is proactive, relevant to his career interests and growing all the time.  Universities love this sort of profile.  Targeting what your children get involved in out of school hours is really important.  It is the quality of experience over the quantity every time.  I lost count of how many applicants I rejected who used their personal statement as a way of listing all the things they had done, making sense of none of them and showing little direction or focus.

My advice is obviously wrapped up in all that has come before but to put it in useful bullet points –

  • Never accept that there is only one way to get to university – look at all the alternatives out there.
  • Check that the courses are accredited at level 3 (NQF) or 6 (SQF)
  • Contact the universities your child is interested in for advice
  • Encourage your child to take on out of school activities that are valued by the universities and that are relevant to their course/career direction
  • Impress on your child that it is not a race to university and they do not have to go at 18; learning is life-long
  • Ensure that their personal statement is written in the style and with the content appreciated by the universities

I do hope this has helped and, more especially, given hope to those of you who have children that are finding school is not right for them.  This should illustrate that at 16 (at the very least) there are other options.

If I can be of any assistance please do not hesitate to ask.

Best wishes to you all and your children,

scottish island mum


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