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Qualification types (UK)

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Title: Qualification types (UK)  
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Qualification types (UK)

In the UK education sector, there are a wide range of qualification types offered by the United Kingdom awarding bodies. Qualifications range in size and type, can be academic, vocational or skills-related, and are grouped together into different levels of difficulty.


  • Qualification levels 1
  • AS and A levels 2
  • Bachelor's degrees 3
  • Diplomas (for 14–19 year olds) 4
  • Entry level qualifications 5
  • Foundation Degrees 6
  • GCSEs 7
  • HNCs and HNDs 8
  • International Baccalaureate 9
  • Key Skills qualifications 10
  • Postgraduate qualifications 11
  • Skills for Life qualifications 12
  • Vocational qualifications 13
  • Reform of vocational qualifications 14
  • See also 15
  • External links 16

Qualification levels

Qualifications are grouped together into different levels. Each level corresponds to a particular qualification’s degree of difficulty. However, qualifications within any one level can cover a huge range of subjects and take different amounts of time to complete.

In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the levels are contained within the National Qualifications Framework. From September 2008, this is being superseded by the Qualifications and Credit Framework. There are nine levels of difficulty in the framework, from entry level to level 8.

Higher education qualifications are also contained in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ). The FHEQ broadly corresponds with levels 4 to 8 of the NQF.

Scotland has its own education system and its own twelve level system, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

AS and A levels

AS level and A (Advanced) level qualifications focus on traditional study skills. They normally take two years to complete full-time in school or college, and can be taken part-time. AS levels can stand as a qualification in their own right, or become the first half of a full A level (the A2 forms the second half).

AS and A levels are available in a wide range of academic and applied (work-related) subjects, and are often used as entry into higher education.

In Scotland, students usually take Highers and Advanced Highers.

AS and A levels are at level 3 on the NQF.

Bachelor's degrees

A bachelor's degree is a course of higher education academic study leading to a qualification such as a bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BSc), or bachelor of medicine (MB). They are sometimes known as 'ordinary' or 'first' degrees.

A bachelors degree is designed to give learners a thorough understanding of a subject, and usually takes three or four years to complete full-time (some degrees such as medicine can take five or six years).

Bachelors degrees are at level 6 on the NQF.

Diplomas (for 14–19 year olds)

The 14–19 Diploma is a qualification for 14 to 19 year-olds, offering a more practical, hands-on way of gaining the essential skills employers and universities look for. From September 2008, Diplomas in five subject areas were made available in selected schools and colleges around the country. Further subjects were added every year until 2011. Currently there are 17 subjects available. The 14–19 Diplomas are at levels 1 to 3 on the NQF.

Entry level qualifications

Entry level qualifications are known as 'certificates' or 'awards', and are designed for learners who are not yet ready to take qualifications at level 1 on the NQF.

They may be appropriate for learners who do not have traditional qualifications, or who have been away from learning for a long time.

They are available in a wide variety of subjects, and at three different levels (all within entry level on the NQF).

Foundation Degrees

Foundation Degrees are higher education qualifications that combine academic study with workplace learning. They have been designed jointly by universities, colleges and employers, and are available in a range of work-related subjects. They are broadly equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor's degree.

Foundation Degrees are at level 5 on the NQF.


GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are the main qualification taken by 14–16 year olds (adults can take them as well). They are available in a wide range of academic and applied (work-related) subjects, and also as a ‘short-course’ option (equivalent to half a full GCSE).

GCSEs are at levels 1 and 2 on the NQF, depending on the grade achieved.

HNCs and HNDs

HNCs (Higher National Certificates) and HNDs (Higher National Diplomas) are work-related higher education qualifications.

HNCs can take one year to complete full-time. HNDs take two years full-time (both can also be studied part-time). They are highly valued by employers, and can also count towards membership of professional bodies and other employer organisations.

HNCs and HNDs are at level 5 on the NQF.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is an internationally recognised qualification for students aged 16 to 19. It is based around detailed academic study of a wide range of subjects, including languages, the arts, science, maths, history and geography, and leads to a single qualification.

The IB Diploma Programme is at level 3 on the NQF.

Key Skills qualifications

Key Skills qualifications are designed to develop the skills that are commonly needed in education and training, work and life in general.

They are available in schools, colleges and from other learning providers, and are also offered by some employers, the armed forces and the Prison Service.

Key Skills can be taken as a stand alone qualification, or as part of other courses (such as an NVQ or some higher education courses). They are also one of the components that make up an Apprenticeship.

Key Skill qualifications are at levels 1 to 4 on the NQF.

Postgraduate qualifications

Postgraduate qualifications are higher education qualifications that require that learners have already completed a bachelors degree. Most types of postgraduate qualification will include taught and research elements.

Generally, they fall into four categories:

Postgraduate qualifications are at levels 7 and 8 on the NQF.

Skills for Life qualifications

Skills for Life (sometimes referred to as Basic Skills qualifications) are designed to help learners develop their reading, writing, maths and ICT skills. There is also a Skills for Life qualification in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

They are available for those learners who are over 16 years of age, have left compulsory full-time education and do not have an up to date English or maths qualification at level 2 (such as a GCSE) on the NQF. In some cases, schools can also offer the qualifications for 14 to 16 year olds.

Skills for Life qualifications are available at entry level to level 2 on the NQF.

Vocational qualifications

Vocational qualifications are designed to give learners the skills and knowledge to do a particular job, work in a particular industry, or acquire more general skills to do a variety of jobs.

They are offered by a variety of awarding bodies such as City and Guilds, Edexcel and OCR.

They are available at various levels on the NQF, and in a variety of different sizes.

A range of vocational qualifications include the competence-based National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) that can be taken at work, college, or as part of an Apprenticeship. They are based on national standards for various occupations, and cover the practical, work-related tasks designed to help learners do a job effectively. NVQs are at levels 1 to 5 on the NQF.

Reform of vocational qualifications

In November 2005, the government established the UK Vocational Qualifications Reform Programme (UKVQRP), to improve the effectiveness of vocational qualifications and other learning programmes across the UK.

The UKVQRP is managed by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and is supported by the Learning and Skills Network through the Qualification Reform Support Programme.

See also

External links

  • Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)
  • QCA NQF factsheet (PDF)
  • National Database of Accredited Qualifications
  • Department for Children Schools and Families, Section 96 qualifications (for learners aged under 19)
  • International Baccalaureate Organization
  • City and Guilds
  • Edexcel
  • OCR Examinations
  • Qualification Reform Support Programme
  • Guide to Higher Education Qualifications
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