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Civil Service

Why going to university wasn't the right path for me

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A Brilliant Civil Service
Head shot of Sarah Makey
Sarah Makey, Fast Track apprentice

As A-level results day hits us once again, we see thousands of students making life-changing decisions about further education and careers and stepping into the daunting world after school.

As someone who not long ago made the decision to go to university and then dropped out after six months, I think it’s important to recognise the alternative paths to further education on offer, and why the Civil Service is leading the way in giving young people from all backgrounds the chance to succeed in the workplace.

Despite getting three Bs in my A-levels and wanting to pursue a career in journalism, I knew quickly once I had started university that it wasn’t for me and I didn’t enjoy it. Dropping out left me with tough choices to make, and I found myself veering towards starting an apprenticeship.

Using the Government’s apprenticeship website, I applied for the Civil Service Fast Track scheme in April and started in the following September. Now I’m working as an apprentice at the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) in Sheffield, where I work in financial business support. One of things I have enjoyed most is moving from my home town of Grimsby to the hustle and bustle of Sheffield and getting stuck into city life!

Licence: Creative Commons Attribution Gary Wolstenholme

For many young people, university isn’t the right option, and I can honestly say that starting a Civil Service Fast Track Apprenticeship is a great alternative. My days are really varied. It’s more than just managing a diary and an inbox. Some days I will be assisting in the approval process of communications for senior ministers, and other days I will be out visiting different teams in the department to understand what they do. As part of my apprenticeship I’m also training to be an accountant with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

I felt like a failure when I left university, but the Fast Track helped give me direction again. I’ve received so much support; and I’ve felt able to try new things without fear.

All my friends and family have seen a change in me for the better. The great thing is the opportunity for success in the Civil Service. It is such a diverse and unique organisation to be part of.

It’s OK to not know exactly what you want to do when you finish your A-levels, and the Civil Service Fast Track Apprenticeship scheme gives you the chance to experience work, gain qualifications and start your career in a huge, supportive organisation. If you are ambitious and willing to work hard you can get so much out of the scheme.

I’d encourage anyone opening their results today and feeling uncertain if university is the right path for them to consider the Civil Service Fast Track Apprenticeship and give it a go. It might just be the best decision you ever make.

The Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme is a two-year programme open to anybody over 16 with minimum qualifications of five A*- C GCSEs, including maths and English. The starting salary is at least £19,500, with opportunities available in finance, digital and technology, business, commercial, and project delivery.

The scheme is part of the Government’s drive to increase the number of apprentices in the public sector – 200,000 apprenticeships will be created in the public sector by 2020 – and encourage a wider pool of people to join the Civil Service. Last year, the Civil Service offered 750 apprenticeships in 25 locations across the UK, including, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, and London.

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  1. Comment by Sarah Makey posted on

    Thank you everyone - I am overwhelmed by the positive comments and words of encouragement and genuinely thrilled that you can get some enjoyment out of the article. It has been, and continues to be, a lot of hard work but I am excited for the future and happy I have the opportunity to help others.

  2. Comment by Joe Dowse posted on

    Sarah, Well done on a brilliant blog. Please ignore the comments about pay from everyone, that is not your concern. You've done a great thing choosing an Apprenticeship in the Civil Service. You, and others, have some great opportunities ahead of you so enjoy it.
    I have been managing an apprentice this year and I am proud to say she has done a fantastic job and I know she will continue to do great things in the future. I know have an understanding of how demanding the apprenticeship is if you want to do a good job and complete your HNC and NVQ alongside holding down your first full time job. I certainly wouldn't have had the wherewithall to do it when I left school. Good luck to you and all of the apprentices joining the Civil Service!

  3. Comment by R Stephenson posted on

    In my experience of over 30 years as a civil servant I have seen people progress through hard work and application and talent. I have also seen people promote because their reporting officer fancied them or because they had just got engaged and 'would need the money' or because they were good at crawling. A meritocracy? Not quite.

  4. Comment by Paul posted on

    Very well done Sarah and thanks for an informative and inspiring article. It's good to see someone else highlighting the fact that attending University isn't the only path to achieving a successful and rewarding career. I can't help thinking that some of previous comments are missing the point and shifting the focus somewhat. After all, I thought the Fast Stream was open to any one? If you want the same salary and status, you know what to do.

  5. Comment by Toby posted on

    Well done ! IT's no easy thing to decide to leave University. I for one and glad the scheme offers a decent pay scheme. If you want to get the best you have to pay a comparable salary. And it's no walk in the park, not least because of moving house! And i for one am glad to see you dont need a degree to enter the scheme .

  6. Comment by Dave Topham posted on

    Thanks Sarah

    A really useful article and great to know there's a Fast Stream for apprentices which doesn't require a degree. I assume this opportunity is open to everyone (including existing Civil Servants) so really useful to know. Staff with degrees can also apply for the Civil Service Fast Stream and, luckily for those without degrees, internal candidates (existing Civil Servants) can I think still apply for generalist Fast Stream. But it's encouraging to see that non-graduates who are also non-Civil Servants can have a Fast Stream option. I applaud your initiative and flexibility in proactively identifying and acting on this opportunity, albeit with some sacrifices such as relocation. The selection procedures are not a walk in the park and the schemes themselves require hard work, flexibility and commitment. I do think we could be better at signposting these opportunities both to our existing workforce and to graduates and school leavers etc. But maybe thats part of the test!

    You set a great example - all the best.

  7. Comment by Gurdeep posted on

    As one of your fellow Finance Fast Track apprentices who also went to university and decided it was not for them, I just wanted to say hats off to you for getting onto the scheme and for giving us an insight into how it has benefitted you!

    The Fast Track scheme is a great way to gain valuable experience whilst completing a highly regarded qualification such as CIMA. I can resonate with your fear after leaving university (and the uncertainty that comes with it!) so its great to hear that the scheme has been a positive experience for you.

    All the best for the future!

  8. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Sarah for a very interesting blog. I have two sons. Our eldest is about to start year 2 at University. He is studying sport which is something that he has a passion for. Our youngest is awaiting his GCSE results and is hoping to attend the local colleague to develop a particular talent / skill that he has.

    It has been encouraging to see that the Organisation has seen the benefits of seeking to recruit from a wide range of people and that those who have not attended University may still have useful talents and skillsets.

  9. Comment by Clare posted on

    The Fast Track Apprenticeships are a great opportunity but have to agree with all comments re starting salary and over-looked long serving staff!

  10. Comment by David posted on

    Well done Sarah - good luck in your career here. I believe I chose the wrong path going to University despite achieving a 1st grade, as I am now in nearly £30,000 debt and despite achieving the highest grade possible in a field that is in demand - I am struggling to get through assessment centres and interview required to take me to the next level in salary. University has become more of a social experience and it is becoming easier to get into University than ever before meaning employers have a surplus of graduates to chose from and inevitably others get left behind.

    Separate from Sarah's fantastic achievement, I cannot deny I am frustrated by the £19,500 starting salary on offer compared to substantially lower pay I receive despite having experience in a range of sectors and other qualifications. I know qualifications don't equal more pay but it must be quite insulting for a starting salary to be that high when others who have been a civil servant for a long time are still not at that pay level. The employee deal has not brought what I expected in terms of pay in the AO grade - the same grade at HMRC offers £1,200 more per annum! I thought the idea of the employee deal was to bridge the massive pay discrepency between the DWP and other governmental departments.

  11. Comment by Sarah Makey posted on

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments, and for taking the time to read this. I really wanted to get my story out there for the purpose of helping other young adults see that there are other alternatives to further education when it often feels like there isnt, and I hope I have suceeded in that.

  12. Comment by Peter posted on

    Thanks Sarah. An interesting article. I have a 17 year old son just about to start his second year of A levels. Thinking about going to University but not sure what subject to do. I have to ask the question why bother. Come out with £50k of debt and no more employable than at the end of A levels. Good luck with your Accountancy studies and future career.
    Some of the comments from other colleagues/civil servants are disappointing. Qualifications should never be a guarantee of promotion. The progression of the Civil Service in terms of being a "meritocracy" over the last 20 years must be applauded. We can all pick holes in how that selection is done but it will always be better than rewarding qualifications achieved before experiencing "real" work. We all know loads of people with loads of qualifications/intelligence but no common sense. And before you ask I have a degree, a masters and a post-graduate management/finance diploma. I progressed through experiencing a number of different roles and in different Depts. Sarah is to be applauded for making the move to Sheffield and taking on the challenge of not just a new job but also a new place to live.

    • Replies to Peter>

      Comment by Steven posted on

      Some good points here, but there's more to University than 'employability skills'. And I don't mean the cheap beer and late starts...

  13. Comment by Grace posted on

    Sarah - thank you for sharing your story. I think it's great that you've found the path right for you and are enjoying your apprenticeship. I know from watching friends go through CIMA that it is hard work but I'm sure you will achieve what you want to and wish you the best of luck!

  14. Comment by Ian Munroe posted on

    Well done, Sarah; you look set for a good career and it's great that you're getting loads of support. There seem to be plenty of opportunities in DWP Head Office; grasp them with both hands and enjoy the experience. It's great to see that there is a good alternative to university, which can burden people with a large debt and isn't for everyone.
    Unfortunately, the department are not good at recognising experience or the skills of their existing workforce, but maybe this is changing.

  15. Comment by James Stewart posted on

    Love the people on here moaning about having a degree but not getting on, the comment that made me laugh was as follows...

    "There are many civil servants like myself with good degrees or higher qualifications that have skills that would be of great use to the wider civil service. Most of these staff have stayed in the same role on the same grade for ten twenty thirty years not using their skills that they either brought with them or have gained due to outside training".

    The fact that they have stayed in the same role and grade for ten, twenty or thirty years speaks for itself. Why do certain people with degrees think this entitles them to a 'Golden Wonka Ticket' for life.

    Good luck to Sarah who realised that University was not for her and not going to university or having a degree was not actually the end of the world.

    • Replies to James Stewart>

      Comment by Mark Crawford posted on

      "Why do certain people with degrees think this entitles them to a 'Golden Wonka Ticket' for life."

      Well, the whole point of Wonka's golden ticket lottery was that the winners were unaware Wonka was secretly aiming to recruit his successor through the scheme, whereas in real life further education is sold (and at more than the cost of a bar of chocolate) as a way to improve one's economic prospects (and not through the randomness of a lottery either).

  16. Comment by Steven posted on

    'It’s OK to not know exactly what you want to do when you finish your A-levels'

    Yes, that's /precisely/ why people go to university. And then there's a multitude of persons who commit to a career and then regret never having gone to University.

    • Replies to Steven>

      Comment by S posted on

      Absolutely. And there's so much more to life, and to university, than preparing for a job. Education should be about enriching your whole life and world-view, taking time out to try new things and so on in a safe environment. If any child of mine had the academic calibre of 3 Bs at A level, I'd certainly be encouraging them to work through whatever personal obstacles (surely not the coursework) that were in the way of them staying at university rather than rushing into the world of work. You're at work for long enough as it is!

  17. Comment by Sophie posted on

    Sarah, thanks for posting on this topic. I think the Civil Service offers a great alternative choice for those who may not want to go to University... what with fees now I myself would choose an apprenticeship over Uni.
    Comments on the starting salary are fair, there are significant discrepencies across MOD (i can't comment on other departments) which really need to be acted upon, it seems that in the last year or so of recruiting apprentices we have woken up and realised we need to pay them more but haven't applied that retrospectively or consistently across all schemes. It's a great starting salary to attract talented people. If they prove themselves deserving enough, through interview/assessment, of the grade they are placed in then why shouldn't they be paid accordingly.

    Best of luck with CIMA! It's hard work, but worth it in the end!

  18. Comment by Robin Trinkwon posted on

    Fair comments on the £19,500 rate of pay, but it's still interesting to at least know opportunities. Also, the fast track (apprenticeship) isn't all plain sailing. It's a tough demanding place to be and more than a few don't complete it.

  19. Comment by Mike posted on

    Think £19,500 will be minimum wage by 2019-20 ... not much incentive to join CS as pay will obviously not have increased by then.

  20. Comment by Jane posted on

    I am delighted that Sarah has found a great career path with the Civil Service and fantastic that we offer this opportunity, however, I'm with Charlotte, reading this at my desk this morning is an absolute kick in the teeth for those of us that have provided excellent service over many years and are not yet at an apprentices 'starting salary'...very demoralizing, thanks Civil Service for bringing this to our attention!

  21. Comment by Sanjita posted on

    This is a great article Sarah, well done to you and what you have achieved so far! It's fantastic to know that our school and college leavers see the value in apprenticeships rather than automatically taking a "I must go to university otherwise I'll never be able to get a good job" view before properly exploring alternatives.

    All the best in your future endeavours!


  22. Comment by andrew osborne posted on

    There are many civil servants like myself with good degrees or higher qualifications that have skills that would be of great use to the wider civil service. Most of these staff have stayed in the same role on the same grade for ten twenty thirty years not using their skills that they either brought with them or have gained due to outside training. We did do a survey about ten years ago asking what qualifications and skills we have, however as far as i know nothing was ever done to utilise these skills. We as a civil service have a wealth of talent that is not used. On joining the civil service i was required to have certain qualifications however since then every internal job advert does not ask for qualifications but tests staff on how well they can write up competencies.

    • Replies to andrew osborne>

      Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

      Andrew, i agree with you. I also have a first degree and yet i also have been in the same grade for the past 23 years in the civil service. It seems that there is a vast pool of talent being wasted. A shame really for the future of the civil service.

    • Replies to andrew osborne>

      Comment by Jane Davis posted on

      I agree. I did that survey too. I've only been in Civil Service 10 years; but have BA & Masters degrees. At 58, I wouldn't get a decent job anywhere else now - especially where I live. People my age, on the whole, have only moved to new jobs on the old, fairer, CV system. Writing competencies is completely alien to me; and, as an employment system, leaves itself wide open to cheating. Whilst I am delighted that Sarah has achieved so much, I do feel that the Civil Service is missing out on an enormous talent pool that is already employed by them.

  23. Comment by William (MoD) posted on

    Firstly, well done Sarah.
    My comment is nothing to do with you.

    It is about fairness in the Civil Service - as the latest batch of MoD Engineering apprentices have just finished their THREE year apprenticeship and they were on less than £19500 in their LAST year.

    How will they feel about that?
    Does this make the civil service look like a "Great Place to Work"?

  24. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

    Great article and nice to see that people who decide University is not for them are given an apprenticeship. However the quip about the salary is insulting to many of us who are already working here. If an apprencticeship starting salary is at least £19,500, what about established civil servants who have been underpaid for years and have worked hard to reach the starting cap of the apprenticeship scheme. It speaks volumes of how the workforce is treated. I would love to have a starting salary of at least £20K! That would take care of the recent rise in inflation!