Pathways to college

There is a national obsession with passing directly from 13 years of formal education into yet more education, and in particular, with going directly into a degree course.  The journey towards further and higher education for many young people with Special Educational Needs or disabilities, is often described as ‘the scenic route’.  It characterises a journey that is less than straightforward and may often entail numerous false starts, break-downs, and diversions.   But I would like to make an argument for the positive aspects of taking the time to plan a more manageable – albeit longer – pathway to further education and training.

In Ireland, post-Leaving Certificate options include attending a Further Education college to study for level 5 and 6 QQI awards (in the UK, these would be equivalent to an NVQ, BTEC or national certificates and diplomas). For some people, this is a less than ideal alternative to going straight to university – parents and students are under enormous pressure to demonstrate that they are ‘going to college’.  Well you can go to college, you can place your feet firmly on the bottom rung of the ladder that will take you as far and as high as you are able to go.  There are hundreds of vacant places for PLC courses, and any one of them may be just the job.

High quality guidance for all students is in short supply in our schools, and yet it is an essential enabler for young people who face psychological, cognitive and physical challenges on a daily basis.

Last yeaplan.jpgr, I met a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome whose Leaving Certificate results were insufficient for admission to a four-year degree course in Animation, nor did they provide him with offers for any of his other choices.  Apart from his obvious disappointment, our student – let’s call him Pete – was at a complete loss as to what to do next.  Pete and his family had resigned themselves to re-applying the following year, but were not hopeful, knowing that the required points and grades would have increased.  So a plan was required, a plan that should have been designed at least a year earlier.  By mapping out the possible routes to his Animation degree, it was easier for Pete to see how progressing through certificates and diplomas, through levels 5, 6 and 7, could enable him to achieve his goal.

Alternative routes are a way and means that should not be overlooked.  Like Beverley, who did not achieve a place on the Radiotherapy course.   However, she accepted a place for Common Entry Science, carefully chose a route through the four-year options that focused on biology, human health, disease, and after successfully gaining her degree, Bev went off to London to do an MSc in Radiology.

National and international studies point out that, in general, young people are just not prepared for college, personally or academically, and this is a significant factor in high withdrawal rates during first year (e.g.  UCD study).  Enrolling in Further Education / post-Leaving Cert / post-A level courses enables students to study at a pace that increases gradually.  It gives them time to figure out what they want to do, and to learn study skills and methods that suit their strengths and challenges.  It gives them time to change their mind and explore different pathways.  It gives them time to acquire the confidence and self-awareness and self-determination, that will take them as far as they want to go.

Pete enrolled in an FE college, passed his Cert, improved his portfolio, and as it was a ‘link’ course, was offered direct entry to a degree course in Animation last week.  🙂


A new Further Education and Training hub allows you to search for courses, funding and supports simultaneously.  Detailed information on PLC courses and progression to Higher Education are available from the CAO who also provide excellent resources for parents, and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has a booklet outlining the range of post-school options.

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