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Article: Qualifications (England & Northern Ireland)


This article looks at the different types of qualifications available in England and Northern Ireland. It will help you understand terms that you will come across when reading careers information. The sections are listed alphabetically.

Access courses

Access courses are designed for adults (19+) who wish to go into higher education (HE), but who do not have the right qualifications. You can study them in colleges throughout England and Northern Ireland, and they are available in a whole range of different subjects. Universities recognise and value Access Courses as an excellent way for adults to get into HE.

You can study them either full-time or part-time. A full-time Access Course will usually take a year to complete.

So, even if you intend to leave school without any A levels or equivalent, you can still get into higher education in the future, by taking an Access Couse.

For more details take a look at

City & Guilds

City & Guilds (C&G) offers and accredits a whole range of work-based or vocational qualifications, for people aged 14-19.

They offer many different types and level of qualification, in a variety of vocational subjects. No matter what career you are interested in, there will be a qualification for you!

Take a look at all the different types qualifications they offer below:

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)

NVQs are designed for people who are already working. They test your abilities in the workplace and give you a chance to show what you can do.

To complete an NVQ you will need to show that you can do certain work-related tasks.

NVQs are assessed in a two different ways:

  • portfolio - you create a folder containing evidence of what you've done at work
  • observation - an Assessor comes in and watches you work, checking that you can do the tasks

Functional Skills, Core Skills and Essential Skills

These online qualifications are designed to support your understanding of Maths, English or ICT - the core skills. They come in a number of levels:

  • Entry 2
  • Entry 3
  • Level 1
  • Level 2

Maths, English and ICT qualifications are available at all of these levels. They are very flexible - you study at your own pace, and choose when you are ready to take your assessment!

Tech Levels

Tech Levels are vocational qualifications for 16-19 year olds, that are designed to help students wishing to specialise in a particular technical career area. You will gain a recognised qualification in your chosen area. They are equivalent to A levels.

Subjects include:

  • agriculture
  • professional cookery
  • veterinary nursing
  • plumbing and heating
  • engineering
  • IT
  • hairdressing

...and there are many more!


Apprenticeships are a mix of on-the-job training with classroom learning. They will provide you with the skills you need for your chosen career, and also give you a recognised, national qualification. There are many different types of Apprenticeship, and they come in four levels:

  • Intermediate Level
  • Advanced Level
  • Higher Level
  • Degree Apprenticeship


Traineeships are designed to prepare young people, aged 16 to 24, for their future careers by helping them to become ‘work ready’. They can help you to get a job, or maybe start an Apprenticeship by giving you important basic skills.

The new Traineeship programme consists of the following core elements:

  • work preparation training
  • English and maths

Tech Bacc

The Tech Bacc (or Technical Baccalaureate), is an exciting new vocational qualification for 16-19 year olds. It is designed to give you the skills you need to shine in the world of work.

The Tech Bacc is made up of three stages:

  • Tech Levels - these are a technical qualification, available in a wide range of career areas, and are equivalent to A levels (see above)
  • level 3 maths qualifications - e.g AS/A level mathematics
  • Extended Project Qualification - this is a final project stage, which tests your writing, research, communication and self-motivation skills


First degrees

These are higher education courses studied at universities and colleges of higher education. The usual entry requirement for a degree is 2/3 A levels (or equivalent) and GCSEs at grade C/4 or higher in 3 other subjects. However, you must check exact entry requirements for particular courses. No qualifications are required for entry to Open University courses.

The most common awards are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BSc)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)
  • Bachelor of Education (BEd)

Degrees are offered as single, joint and combined subjects.

There are two levels of degree: Ordinary and Honours. Honours degrees are given different classifications to indicate how well students have done. These are:

  • First Class (1)
  • Upper Second (2:1)
  • Lower Second (2:2)
  • Third Class (3)

Degrees normally take three to four years to complete on a full-time basis, but two year fast-track degrees are becoming increasingly available in a limited range of subjects. Degrees can take up to six or seven years to complete part-time.

Higher degrees

These are normally referred to as postgraduate qualifications. A first degree is normally required for entry to a higher degree.

The most common awards are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MSc)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

These courses can be studied on a full- or part-time basis. They can take between one and three years to complete.

The next step is a Doctorate. The most common of these include: PhD, DPhil (both mean Doctor of Philosophy), DSc (Doctor of Science) and DLitt (Doctor of Letters) and usually involve a long period of in-depth research.

Foundation degrees

These are employment-related higher education qualifications that can be taken over two years full-time, or on a part-time basis.

They have been developed with the help of employers and are available at many higher and further education institutions. They cover a wide range of subjects.

Foundation degrees can be used to improve career opportunities and earning potential, as they provide a mix of work-related specialist skills and academic learning. They can also be used to progress on to a related honours degree.

They are delivered flexibly in a variety of ways, such as over the Internet, and by distance learning, making them ideal for those in employment. There are no set academic entry requirements for foundation degrees. Each institution has its own entry criteria.

The Diploma

The Diploma was a flexible qualification offering a mixture of practical and theoretical learning. Students had the opportunity to learn in different schools, colleges and workplaces.

The Diploma was available at three levels:

  • Level 1 was equivalent to studying four to five GCSEs
  • Level 2 was equivalent to studying five to six GCSEs
  • Level 3 was equivalent to studying three A Levels.

There were fourteen subjects available:

  • Business, Administration and Finance
  • Construction and the Built Environment
  • Creative and Media
  • Engineering
  • Hair and Beauty
  • Hospitality.
  • IT
  • Land-based and Environmental Studies
  • Manufacturing and Product Design
  • Society, Health and Development.
  • Public Services.
  • Sport and Leisure.
  • Retail.
  • Travel and Tourism.

The Project

The Project is a qualification available to 14 to19 year-olds. It formed a compulsory part of the 14 to 19 Diploma qualification, but is now available for study in its own right, for example, alongside GCSE or A level qualifications.

Students can choose a format of their choice, in which to present their Project. For example:

  • CD
  • DVD
  • Oral Presentation
  • Product Production.

Edexcel (BTEC)

Edexcel is an examining and awarding body. They provide a range of qualifications as well as BTECs.

BTEC qualifications are delivered at four levels:

  • qualification level 1: BTEC introductory certificate/diploma
  • qualification level 2: BTEC first diploma
  • qualification level 3: BTEC national award/certificate/diploma
  • qualification level 4: BTEC higher national certificate/diploma

BTEC Higher Nationals (HNDs and HNCs) develop the skills that are needed for the workplace. They are good preparation for technician or managerial level jobs in industry and commerce. They feature work placements, coursework and practical work. They can be used to convert to a degree course and may be studied part-time.

BTEC Short Courses are also available at five levels, ranging from Entry Level to Qualification Level Five.

GCE A and AS levels

As From September 2015, AS level and A levels have changed

AS and A levels in the following subjects have become two seperate qualifications.

  • art & design
  • biology
  • business
  • chemistry
  • computer science
  • economics
  • English language
  • English literature
  • history
  • physics
  • psychology
  • sociology

A levels in these subjects will involve two years of study, followed by a final exam at the end. After this, you can decide whether to move into further or higher education, or enter into employment.

AS levels in these subjects will become a seperate qualification and will no longer form part of an A level. The new AS levels will take one year to complete, with a final exam at the end. They will be equivalent to and taught alongside year one of an A level. After completing an AS level you can decide whether to continue with your study, possibly taking A levels, or going into employment.

However, A levels and AS levels in other subjects will remain as follows:

A levels and AS levels are courses that require the study of single subjects in depth. Sometimes you are assessed by examination only, while others contain coursework assessment as well. You will be graded A*-E at the end of the course.

AS levels consist of three AS units. They are studied in the first year of a full two-year A level. The usual pattern on a two-year full-time course is to study four or five AS levels in the first year. In the second year, you can continue with some or all of these, with your AS grade counting towards your final full A level.

Alternatively, you can start one or more new AS levels in the second year, and receive an AS qualification in those subjects that you do not want to continue with.

An A level is made up of three AS units and three additional A2 units. The units may be taken in stages or all together at the end of the course.

After AS and/or A levels, you can either continue with your study or enter employment.

Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs)

Advanced Extension Awards are available in maths.

These awards are designed to challenge the most able A level students. They give students the opportunity to show the ability to think critically and creatively.

They are assessed externally, but will require no additional teaching or resources.

A levels in applied subjects

A levels in applied subjects provide a broad introduction to a vocational area. It is possible to study for these qualifications in subjects such as performing arts, travel and tourism, engineering, and health and social care.

Free Standing Maths Qualifications (FSMQs)

FSMQs are maths qualifications that are geared towards bridging the gap between academic and vocational study.

These courses allow students to develop maths ability specific to their studies. For example, they might do a FSMQ that includes study of managing money or working in 2- or 3-D. They are mainly aimed at people who want a maths qualification but who do not want to do an AS or A level.

Cambridge Pre-U

The Cambridge Pre-U is a new qualification, aimed at 16 to 19 year-olds who want to go to university.

Unlike the A Level qualification, the Cambridge Pre-U will prepare students for just one set of exams at the end of two years of study.

Students can study up to four Principal Cambridge Pre-U subjects, choosing from a choice of 26 subjects, or they can choose to study three Principal Subjects, a Global Perspectives unit and an independent research report.

The Cambridge Pre-U is graded Pass, Merit, or Distinction.


GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

Students normally take up to ten GCSEs over a two-year period from the age of 14.

  • they can take from one to two years to complete
  • there are GCSEs in a wide variety of subjects, including vocational subjects
  • GCSEs can be studied in schools, sixth form colleges and colleges of further education
  • a GCSE short course takes half the time to study and counts as half a GCSE
  • GCSEs usually involve a combination of written work, projects and practical work. They are assessed by exams, orals and coursework.

Currently, GCSEs are graded from A* (the highest) to G (the lowest), with grades A* to C being considered a good pass. Grade U is unclassified fail.

However, as from September 2015, most GCSEs are now graded 1-9, with 9 being the highest:

Speak to your Teacher if you are unsure about the new grading system.

GCSEs in vocational subjects

These are made up of three units and are equivalent to two GCSEs.

They are graded from A-G and are available in the following subjects:

  • applied art and design
  • applied business
  • engineering
  • health and social care
  • leisure and tourism
  • manufacturing
  • applied science
  • construction and the built environment (only available in some areas of the country)

They provide an introduction to the broad vocational area and enable progression to further education, training and employment.

Key skills qualifications

Key skills qualifications are made up of units of communication, application of number, ICT, working with others, improving your own learning and performance, and problem solving.

They are designed to help you prepare for the world of work. Assessment is based on tests and a portfolio of coursework. A certificate is awarded for each key skill achieved showing the level reached from 1 to 4.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)

NVQs are designed for people who are already working. They test your abilities in the workplace and give you a chance to show what you can do.

To complete a NVQ you will need to show that you can do certain work-related tasks.

NVQs are assessed in a two different ways:

  • portfolio - you create a folder containing evidence of what you've done at work
  • observation - an assessor comes in and watches you work, checking that you can do the tasks

Professional/trade association qualifications

Many professional bodies offer qualifications which relate specifically to their particular area of work. Certain degrees can give exemption from professional body examinations.


English Baccalaureate

The English Baccalaureate was introduced in 2010. However, unlike the International Baccalaureate, it isn't an actual qualification.

The EBacc is a performance measure. What this means is that it measures whether pupils have secured a C/4 grade or better in a series of academic subjects - English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. Eventually, pupils will be able to receive a certificate showing that they've achieved the EBacc.

For more information and for a full list of the qualifications covered, go to the Department of Education website and search for English Baccalaureate.

Welsh Baccalaureate

The Welsh Baccalaureate, or Welsh Bac for short, is a qualification for 14 to 19 year old students in Wales.

It combines personal development skills with existing qualifications like A levels, NVQs and GCSEs. It can be studied in English or Welsh, or a combination of the two languages.

There are elements of the Bac that are similar to the new Diplomas being introduced in England. Like the Diploma, the Welsh Bac aims to teach students not only skills which are useful for further and higher education, but also for the world of work and life in general.

Parts of the new Diplomas will also be available to students in Wales as part of their Baccalaureate qualification. These are:

  • the project
  • principal learning.

There are three levels you can do the Welsh Bac in. These are:

  • Foundation Diploma - equivalent to GCSEs at grades D - G, NVQ level 1, etc.
  • Intermediate Diploma - equivalent to GCSEs at grades A*-C, or NVQ level 2, etc.
  • Advanced Diploma - equivalent to A Level standard, or NVQ level 3, etc.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) is a non-profit making educational foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It offers schools three programmes of study:

  • the Diploma Programme for 16 to 19-year-olds
  • the Middle Years Programme for 11 to 16-year-olds
  • the Primary Years Programme for 3 to 12-year-olds

Various methods of assessment are used, for example, coursework, practical work, orals and written examinations.

Virtually every university in the UK will accept the IB Diploma Programme (DP) as an entry qualification. You can check with UCAS for the point scores required by British universities. It is also possible to use your DP qualification to get into a university outside the UK.

Further Information


Tel: 0845 6180440


Open University (OU)

Tel: 0845 3006090


City & Guilds

Address: 1 Giltspur Street, London EC1A 9DD

Tel: 020 7294 2468



British Qualifications 2013

Publisher: Kogan Page

British Vocational Qualifications 2010

Publisher: Kogan Page

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