Understanding vocational qualifications

With so many work-related qualifications to choose from it can be difficult to find the right one for you. This guide gives a brief introduction to practical courses, and highlights some of the key qualifications available at 16 plus.

What is a vocational qualification?

Vocational qualifications are directly related to a particular job or area of work. They focus on learning skills and hands-on training.

Thinking of going to university?The subjects you study at college or sixth form will determine which degree courses will be open to you in future.

For more details about how this could affect you see Informed Choices, a guide produced by the Russell Group which represents 24 of the leading UK universities.

How I can choose the right course for me?

Speak to your local college or a careers advisor to find out more about available courses, which ones are likely to suit you, and entry requirements.

What’s the difference between qualifications?

From September 2014, there will be two new types of vocational qualification for 16-19 year olds: Tech Levels and Applied General qualifications – both at level 3 (see box below to understand what the levels mean).

Tech Levels give you specialist knowledge for specific careers such as engineering, computing and hospitality, and can be studied alongside or instead of A-levels.

Applied General qualifications focus on a broader area, for example applied science, business or sport.  They are recognised by universities for entry to higher education and can be combined with A-levels.

Different types of qualifications can be approved as Tech Levels or Applied General qualifications. Check the approved vocational qualification lists  to see whether the qualification you are thinking of studying has a track record of helping students progress to work, apprenticeships or further study and counts as either a Tech Level or Applied General qualification.

More generally, qualification types include:

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) – flexible qualifications that provide students with skills to do a particular job.They are delivered in the workplace or in settings that match the work environment, and are awarded through assessment and training.

BTEC Nationals – specialist vocational qualifications valued by the relevant industry sector and within Higher Education.There are three qualifications available, equivalent to two or three A-levels, depending on the number of credits.

What do levels mean?All recognised qualifications have been given a level, to try and make it easier to compare one to another.The range starts at entry level, then progresses from level one, through to level eight.

As a guide:

level one includes GCSEs grades D-G, and NVQs level 1;

level two include GCSEs grades A*-C and NVQs level 2;

level three includes AS/A-levels and Tech Levels and Applied General qualifications.

For further details visit OFQUAL, the qualifications regulator.

CACHE qualifications are designed for people who would like a career in the care, health or education, and are particularly suited to students who want to work with children and young people.

Other vocational or technical qualifications and awards – there is a wide range of specialist qualifications offered by awarding bodies, such as OCR and City and Guilds, which can be taken on their own or in combination with other courses of study.

Foundation Degrees combine academic study and work-based learning, and usually take around two years to complete, although flexible options are often available.They are designed and delivered in partnership with employers to equip students with the relevant knowledge and skills for business. Students may be able to undertake an additional year of study, often at a university with links to the FE college, in order to receive an Honours Degree.

HNCs and HNDs (Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas) are level 4/5 vocational qualifications.The HNC is often studied part-time alongside employment.  Applicants will usually need good A-level passes (the equivalent of level 3) or to have completed a Foundation Course. After around two years of study, successful students can go on to university to complete an Honours Degree.

Other options

An apprenticeship is a real job with training. You earn while you learn, working towards recognised qualifications and developing practical skills. See our Focus On Apprenticeships section for more details.

For an overview of all your options, see Choices at 16: what next?

Find out more

Find FE provides a search facility to find Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges in the UK.

Explore and compare courses at hundreds of schools, colleges and work-based learning providers through UCAS Progress.

Contact a Careers Advisor through the National Careers Service.