School Leaver Programmes

If you have recently finished school, then a school leaver programme is another alternative to university.

What are school leaver programmes?

They are a recent addition and rapidly gaining credibility as a viable option to consider after you've completed your school studies.

Many of the top firms in industries such as:

  • Accountancy
  • ICT
  • Construction
  • Tax and
  • Audit and Banking

are offering school leaver programmes to attract bright, talented A-level qualified students into the world of work.

The possibilities are breathtakingly enticing but the job opportunities are oversubscribed and very competitive, so seize your chance when you can. 

Instead of studying for 3 to 4 years at university for a degree; and with both tuition fees and living expenses creating a student debt of usually over £50,000 before you even start work, these employers will pay for you to study a degree in their field of expertise, while you work for them as an employee and get paid a salary.

For example the top professional services firms e.g. EY (Ernst and Young) and Grant Thornton offer school and college leaver programmes where you join the company as an employee, they pay you a good salary (can be up to £22,000 in London), on top of which they pay all your tuition fees for your degree (or equivalent) and guarantee you a permanent position after you complete your degree.

In addition you may also gain a professional qualification such as ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), all without incurring any or very little student debt and you’re already working; progressing on your career path. 

Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t, though there are commitments from your side as well.

Many of these firms will ask you to sign up to a 5 year school leaver programme, so you will be working for the same firm all this time.

This is because they want to see a ROI (Return on Investment) on the time and money they are investing in your learning, reap its rewards when you continue to work for them after you qualify.

You may find that a few of these employers offer to pay for 50-75% of your tuition fees and you pay the remainder; a sizeable reduction in your student debt. 

In addition you’ll need to be passionate about and committed to your work, as you will be working and studying very long hours with short annual leave entitlements and you may find your social life curtailed due to little spare time.

This is instead of studying full time at university where you can enjoy long holidays, significantly shorter studying and working hours and a very full social life.

Despite the long hours and very hard work, the limited places are hotly contested but where can you find out more and apply?

You can often apply directly on the individual employer websites and a basic internet search should give you the names of employers offering school leaver programmes.
A different style of school leaver programmes are also starting to take off in other industries such as Hospitality, Media, Public Services and Science and Technology where they are called Higher Apprenticeships.

With Higher Apprenticeships you will usually need A-level qualifications as minimum entry requirements, work for an employer, be paid a wage (though this can be the minimum apprenticeship wage rather than the higher salaries offered by professional services firms) and study for a professional qualification in this sector.

This is usually a Higher National Diploma (equivalent to the first 2 years of a degree course) or an honours degree itself which your employer will pay for, again meaning no or very little student debt.

Find out how to apply and more by visiting the national apprenticeship guide or reading our apprenticeships guide.

How do school leaver programmes work?

School leaver programmes are offered in a variety of industries, and the structure of each of these programmes is dependent on the company that organises it. However, every programme has three defining features:

  • You will be employed on a part-time or full-time basis.
  • You will work towards a nationally recognised qualification – bachelors or foundation degree, a Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma
  • You will earn a salary, and be paid for both work and study periods.

The structure of these programmes are similar to sponsored degree programmes. The structure is similar in the way in which blocks of study are combined with work placements in a company.

Again, the arrangements for study blocks and work placements are dependent on each company. BDO’s school leaver programme use external tutor firms to train their accountancy students. KPMG school leavers spend an entire year at university before returning for work placements.

This is why school leaver programmes are so exciting, because of the variety they offer to students. To find out more, take a look at the content of different schemes on the employer's website, and in particular, the job description.

Why should I take a school leaver programme?

Why should you do a school leaver programme? Well, how about we give you five reasons.

1. Earn while you learn

Students who complete a school leaver programme will be paid for the duration of their course.

Different courses offer different salaries, so do some investigating, and look at the information on job vacancy pages. How much you will be paid is likely to vary depending on where in the UK you live.

If it's unclear, contact the company directly and ask, along with any other details that are missing.

2. Gain a qualification

Not only will you earn a competitive salary; at the end of a school leaver programme you will gain a valuable qualification.

Dependent on your course, you could finish with a Higher National Certificate and even a degree!

3. Avoid debt

All school leaver programmes are funded by the company you will work for, or part-funded, with the rest covered by the government.

In 2017, the BBC reported that students who recently graduated accumulated a debt of over £50,000.

That’s the highest student debt in any English-speaking country in the world, so a school leaver programme is an opportunity to earn great career-starting qualifications (even a degree), while avoiding huge student debts.

4. Gain practical skills and experience

School leaver programmes are designed by employers to ensure its apprentices are trained to have the skills they need to perform a specific role within the company.

The studying and on-the-job training that define school leavers programmes make candidates ready for the work place.

5. Become more employable

School leaver programmes make you more employable, with many programmes guaranteeing a job at the end, giving you an opportunity to get on the career ladder early.

However, if you complete a programme that does not guarantee employment, or you are not interested in the role offered, you are still highly employable.

You will finish your programme with sought-after industry experience and qualifications, and your application will stand out to employers for any role you apply for.

Whether you decide your next step is applying to university or a school leaver programme, give yourself time to think about it carefully before you make your choice.

It may help to chat it through with family and friends. In the end it’s your decision, so go with the option you believe you’ll be happiest with and which will also progress your career.  

What will I earn?

You can earn a fearsome salary if you do a school leaver programme. While each programme has a different pay structure, it is clear that industry leading companies across the UK are investing in careers for school leavers.

Students on the KPMG school leaver scheme are offered a paid work experience placement, depending on work location, with pay-rises over the duration of the course.

KPMG also run an Audit School and College Leaver Programme that has a starting salary of £16, 000-£21, 500, also depending on office location.

The salaries for KPMG school leaver programmes mirror the average salaries of other programmes, but we advise you to look at company websites for specific figures.

How do I apply for a school leaver programme?

You can apply for a school leaver programme at the following websites:

Most organisations that run these initiatives will outline the application process on their websites to give you an idea of what to expect when you apply, however you can usually expect to fill out an application form, complete an employer test, attend an interview and (possibly) go to an assessment day.

It's a good idea to do some research about what's expected from you when you do put yourself forward for a role.

What are the entry requirements?

These will vary between different programmes. Some will ask for minimum A level grades, such as AAB or ABB, plus a particular grade in English, Maths or Science, e.g. B.

Others will ask for a minimum number of UCAS points, plus passes in a handful of GCSE subjects.

Check the entry requirements carefully for each scheme you are considering applying for, and make sure you think are able to meet them.

What are the benefits of school leaver programmes?

Choosing a school leaver programme instead of going to university means avoiding racking up massive debts. These schemes also give you an opportunity to gain the qualifications to start a career, without financial burden.

Not only can you save money, but you will have money in your bank account at the end of each month. Some companies offer a salary over £20,000, along with perks and benefits.

On top of this, as the study periods of school leaver initiatives often take place at university, companies will pay for your tuition fees. So you'll be getting the education that other students are paying thousands for, for free!

The graduate market is also still very competitive, but the school leaver market not so much. This means it can be easier to find employment with the top companies as a school leaver, rather than a graduate.

Also, as you may have heard before, starting work with a company at such a young age will allow you to develop practical work skills quickly, which are highly sought after by employers.

As you work toward completing your apprenticeship, you'll be working alongside some great entrepreneurial minds and seasoned professionals, which can help you build a network of contacts that will be useful in the future for your career development.

Companies offering school leaver programmes position them as clear alternatives to university, and give you the chance to attain valuable qualifications.

It could be a bachelor's degree, foundation degree or professional accredited qualifications. Essentially, you have the main benefit of going to university, without the financial drawbacks.

What isn't there to like?

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for apprenticeships, please see: