Information for parents: Qualifications explained

Qualifications explainedThere is a range of qualifications that your child may be able to study after Year 11 and even more that they could progress on to later. Chris Speedy guides you through the qualifications’ landscape.

This section gives you some information about the qualifications available at different levels.

The chart below shows some examples of how different qualifications compare to each other. Depending on what subjects and levels young people have studied, they may be able to move between different types of qualification. For example, they may be able to move from a general education course at Level 2 on to a Diploma at Level 3.

The chart is a general guide, so when applying for courses and Apprenticeships, you should always check out the specific entry requirements needed.

Comparing qualifications
Entry Level Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Levels 4-8
General education courses See Foundation Learning (bottom row) GCSE grade D-G Functional Skills GCSE grade A*-C Functional Skills A Levels (AS, A2) International Baccalaureate Degree Post Graduate Degree (eg MA, MSc, PhD)
Vocational education courses (including BTEC, NVQ and City and Guilds) See Foundation Learning (below) Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 1 (eg BTEC Diploma Level 1 or NVQ Level 1) Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 2 (eg City and Guilds or QCF Diploma Level 2) Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 3 (eg BTEC or QCF Diploma Level 3) HNC/HND Professional Diploma Foundation Degree
Apprenticeships Pre-Apprenticeship programme – part of Foundation Learning (below) Pre-Apprenticeship programme – part of Foundation Learning (below)  Intermediate Apprenticeship – NVQ Level 2 plus technical certificates (eg BTEC Level 2) Advanced Apprenticeship – NVQ Level 3 plus technical certificates (eg BTEC Level 3)  Higher Apprenticeship – NVQ 4/5 ( may inc. Foundation Degree, HND etc.)
Foundation Learning Awards, Certificates or Diplomas at Entry Level 1, 2 or 3 Functional Skills Pre-Apprenticeship programme Awards, Certificates or Diplomas at Level 1 Functional Skills Pre-Apprenticeship programme Foundation Learning goes up to Level 1 and can provide entry on to a Level 2 course, a job or an Apprenticeship

Remember that not all qualifications and subjects will be available at a particular school, college or learning provider. You can find out which qualifications are available locally on GOV.UK or by searching the UCAS Progress course database.


GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

GCSEs are level 1 or 2 courses (depending on the grade achieved) and are available in a wide range of academic and applied subjects. This qualification is usually taken in Year 11, although they can also be taken at college at any age. They are usually achieved in two years and are graded from A* – G. A very high percentage of school pupils take these qualifications at the age of 16. They are the most common and well known of qualifications.

  • GCSEs at grades D-F are Level 1 qualifications
  • GCSEs at grades A*-C are Level 2 qualifications

GCSE grades are used as an entry qualification for jobs, training and courses. Students may be able to study Applied GCSEs at some schools and colleges. These are GCSEs which relate to a broad area of work (such as Engineering or Tourism) and are available in nine subjects. They allow students to learn in a hands-on, practical way and are mainly assessed through coursework, rather than exams. Applied GCSEs are double awards, equivalent to two traditional GCSEs.


A Level (AS Level)

A levels are Level 3 courses and are available in a wide range of academic and applied subjects. They are usually completed in two years and are graded A* to E. A high percentage of learners staying on at school or college study AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A levels however they can be studied at other learning centres.

They can be achieved in two parts; year one is at AS Level. This can be a freestanding qualification in its own right (graded A to E).

To achieve a full A level, students need to complete a further year of study at A2. Completing A levels usually allows progress to courses at level 4. A levels are a traditional route for entry to higher education and training for the professions.


Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)

The Extended Project Qualification can be studied separately or alongside other qualifications like A Levels. It gives students the opportunity to plan and research a topic of their choice as part of a project. It could involve studying a topic from an A Level or other course in more detail, or working on an entirely different subject. The finished project could be something like:

  • an essay or report
  • a performance 
  • an investigation
  • a piece of artwork

This qualification may not be available at all schools and colleges.


Functional skills

Functional skills are practical skills in English, Maths and ICT that allow them to work or study confidently and independently. They are the skills that most employers look for and value, whatever kind of career they want to go into.

Functional skills are usually studied as part of another qualification or course. They can be at different levels depending on what course they are studying.

  • They could be studied at Entry Level as part of a Foundation Learning course.
  • They could be taken at Level 1 as part of a GCSE in English, Maths or ICT.
  • They could be taken at Level 2 as part of an Apprenticeship.

Since September 2010 they have also been available as separate qualifications in schools and colleges. Have a look at  GOV.UK’s What different qualifications levels mean  for more information including how to compare different levels.


International Baccalaureate (IB)

This is a two-year course for 16-19 year-olds which covers Languages, Arts, Science, Maths and a range of other subjects. It leads to a qualification which is recognised by universities and employers around the world. The IB Diploma is a Level 3 qualification. It could lead on to courses at Levels 4-6, for example BTEC HND, NVQ Level 4 or a higher education degree. Find out more about the IB Diploma.


Vocational Awards, Certificates and Diplomas

These are a set of qualifications which include NVQ and BTEC. They cover a wide range of subjects at every level, and teach practical skills needed for work or further study in that subject. Courses are available in a range of different subjects, levels and sizes.

  • The subject tells us what kind of things they’ll be studying, for example Engineering, Hair and Beauty or Graphic Design.
  • The level tells us how hard it is, compared to other courses like GCSEs or A Levels. Courses are available from Entry Level up to Level 8. To find out more about qualification levels take a look at the chart at the top of this page.
  • The ‘Award, Certificate or Diploma’ part of the title tells us the size of the course — how long it takes to complete.

Here are some examples of course titles:

  • Level 1 Award in Reading and Writing Spanish
  • Level 2 Certificate in Applied Science
  • Level 3 Diploma in Retail Skills
  • Level 3 Award in Business Finance

Over 2,500 different courses are available across the country, although you will need to check which ones are provided in your local schools or colleges.


National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)

NVQs are work-based awards and are available at all levels. However most NVQs are available from levels 1 to 5. NVQs are broken down into small units so that they can be delivered and assessed flexibly at a place of work.

They cover a huge variety of careers. They are delivered in the workplace or somewhere set up to be like a workplace.

NVQs are the main qualification that forms part of an Apprenticeship, but they can also be studied separately at some schools and colleges or in the workplace. They can lead into employment, an apprenticeship or further learning at college.



BTECs are general vocational qualifications. This means they are available in subjects linked to an area of work. They are available for students who find learning difficult through to highly skilled professional workers.

They can lead on to further study at college or university, Apprenticeships or employment. Courses combine practical work with academic learning in a wide range of subjects such as Art and Design, Engineering, Business Studies, Applied Chemistry and Retail Management.

BTEC qualifications are available in seven levels ranging from BTEC Introductory Diplomas and Certificates to BTEC Advanced Diplomas, Certificates and Awards. Within each level, the qualifications are available in a range of sizes, taking different amounts of time to complete.

Some courses at level 2 and 3 run alongside A level and GCSE subjects. Others are aimed at people in employment who need special qualifications to help them get on at work. They can be studied full time or part time, in schools and colleges and in the workplace.


Certificates of Higher Education

Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE) are courses at level 4. They require one year full-time or two year part-time study.

Although CertHE courses are awards in their own right they usually form the first year of a degree course. They can be offered in single subjects or vocational areas.


Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

This is a Level 5 qualification. Two-year, full-time DipHE courses are normally equivalent to the first two years of a degree and can often be used for entry to the third year of a related degree course. They are mainly linked to vocational areas such as nursing and social work.



HNCs (Higher National Certificates) and HNDs (Higher National Diplomas) are vocational higher education qualifications at level 5. They are aimed at giving learners the skills that can be used in a particular job.

Both HNCs and HNDs are available in a wide range of vocational areas. HNCs can take one year to complete full time and two years part time. HNDs take two years full time and can also be taken part time but will take longer to complete.


Foundation Degrees

These are Level 5 vocational qualifications (2 years if full time) designed and delivered in partnership between employers and HE providers. They are taught in a college but awarded by a university. They combine study with workplace learning, so those students who are in employment can use their place of work to provide evidence of their learning and for project work.

Foundation Degrees can be a good option if you are already working and want to further your career or if you want to study a subject related to a job. Many students go on to study for a full Honours Degree (which usually takes one further year) and study usually takes place at a university.



Degrees are higher education qualifications which are usually studied at university or a higher education college but can sometimes be taken at an FE college. They are available at two levels – Ordinary (level 5) or Honours (level 6).

These are the most well-known type of degrees and are the ones that most learners study in higher education. They are available in a very wide range of subjects and vocational areas. They are the minimum entry requirement for many professions.

Most degree courses take three years to complete. Masters degrees (level 7) are a ‘post graduate’ degree offered at universities. This means that the learner would first need to get a degree qualification – then continue with their research and study to obtain a Masters (MA or MSc).

They are achieved by showing a very high level of knowledge about a subject or topic. They are usually achieved by undertaking a research project over several years.

Doctorates (PhDs) (level 8) are a ‘post graduate’ degree offered at universities. This means that the learner would first need to get a degree qualification – then continue with their research and study to obtain a PhD.


Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates

Post graduate certificates and diplomas are at level 7. They allow learners to build on the skills and knowledge gained in a first degree and are available in a wide variety of subjects.

Post Graduate certificates are required for entry to some professions for example Teaching (PGCE) and Law (GDL).

Certificates are often shorter than diplomas, with each taking a number of months (but less than one year) to complete full time.


Chris Speedy is a Careers Adviser with more than 30 years’ experience. This article is from his website Careers Advice for Parents and Young People.


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