Giving you the confidence to choose the right qualification

An overview of the different types of qualifications available in the UK

14-19 qualifications

These qualifications are taken by typically taken by learners looking to enter into further or higher education or go directly into employment:

Advanced Highers

The Advanced Higher is a Level 7 qualification in the SQCF. They are designed to give learners an opportunity for in-depth study and independent learning in a more specialised subject area. They are required for Scottish learners that wish to study in English Universities. Advanced Higher courses are equivalent of the first year of a Scottish university in a particular subject and can be used by learners to enter Scottish Universities in the second year (of four) orthose looking to enter directly into employment. Learners study 3 subjects over one year. They are made up of three units which are assessed by teachers in the form of coursework, examinations or practical work and an externally assessed examination or project marked by the SQA. As with Highers, they are graded A, B, C as passes and D and No Award denoting a fail. There are currently 38 Advanced Highers available in subjects such as Administration, Chemistry, Gaelic (Learners) and Product Design.

A levels

A levels (The Advanced Level General Certificate of Educcation) are taught over two years full time, the first year at AS (Advanced Subsidiary) level and the second at A2 (Advanced) level.  They are graded A* to E. AS levels can be standalone qualifications or 50% of a full A level. Learners will usually study 4 AS levels and progress onto 3 A levels. Most learning providers will require learners to have passed 5 GCSE's (A*to C) to begin an A level courses. They are available across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in a wide range of about 80 academic and vocational subjects including Accounting, French, Computer Science and Sociology.They are most suitable for learners wishing to progress into higher education. Most A levels are made up of four units. Assessment is typically by written exam, coursework and for subjects such as art an assessment of practical skills.

Cambridge Pre-U

The Cambridge Pre-U is a relatively new qualification for students aged over 16. It is designed to develop the skills needed for unversity study and most notably the ability to study independently. They can be studied individually, or as a Pre-U Diploma. The Pre–U Diploma consists of three subjects as well as an Independent Research Report and Global Perspectives Course which promotes cross-cultural awareness and an international outlook .Universities accept Pre-U's as equivalent to A Levels.They are available in 27 subjects including Biology, Classical Greek, Comparative Government & Politics and Music.


General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) are single subject qualifications. Learners usually study between 8 and 11 GCSE's over the course of two years. They are compulsory for 14-16 year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. GCSEs are available in over 40 academic subjects, and 9 applied (work related) subjects at level 1 and 2 in the NQF. Learners in compulsory education are required to study core subjects including English, Science and Maths. At the end of year nine (aged 13-14) learners typically chose which additional subjects they wish to study, in areas such as Art or Modern Foreign Languages. GCSEs are graded A* to G with U as ungraded. In some subjects you are set in a higher or foundation tier which determines the maximum grade you can get. Pass grades (A*to C) in Maths and English GCSE's are commonly required to enter further education and employment.


The International General Certificate of Secondary Education is an internationally recognised qualification devised by the University of Cambridge (with Edexcel offering its own versions).They became popular internationally with British expatriates in private international schools. In similarity to GCSE's pass grades are A*-C. Over 70 subjects are available, including 30 language courses such as Afrikaans, Arabic and Japanese. As they are designed for an international market, many language IGCSEs are available in two versions, as a first language or foreign language. They are becoming increasingly popular in private schools and are used to progress onto qualifications such as a A Levels or Cambridge's Pre-U qualification.


Highers (Level 6 in the SCQF) are taken by learners in the 5th year of secondary education in Scotland. They are the equivalent of AS Levels in England. Learners aged 16-17 usually study 5 Highers in schools or colleges in Scotland. Highers provide the main route to higher education in Scotland. Highers are graded A, B, C as passes and D and No Award denoting a fail. Highers are available in a wide range of subjects including English, Geography, Latin and Manufacturing.

Standard Grades and National Courses

Qualifications taken by learners aged 14 to 16 in Scotland in their 3rd and 4th year of secondary education. Learners typically take 8 subjects and are assessed by in a final exam at the end of their 4th year. Learners are required to study a range of subjects including English, Maths, Physical Education (PE) and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Education (RMPS). Standard Grade exams are tiered at three levels, Foundation level (SCQF level 3), General level (SCQF level 4) and Credit level (SCQF level 5). Learners are marked using a scoring system of 1 to 7.

Standard Grades are being phased out and replaced by a range of National courses and units as part of the Higher Still qualification reforms. Three levels of Access qualifications (Access 1,2 and 3 have been introduced at SCQF levels 1,2 and 3. Access level 3 is equivalent to the Foundation level Standard Grade. Intermediate 1 and 2 qualifications have also been introduced which are roughly equivalent to the Standard Grade General Level and Credit Level respectively. National courses combine units internally assessed by teachers with an end exam marked by SQA.

Welsh Baccalaureate

The Welsh Baccalaureate is available to 14-19 year olds in Welsh schools, colleges and training providers. it is available at 3 levels; Foundation (NQF level 1), Intermediate (NQF level 2) and Advanced (NQF level 3). The Welsh Baccalaureate is comprised of two components, a core programme and a set of options. The core programme focuses on developing key skills and employability skills, conducting an individual investigation, an exploration of issues in modern life and developing an awareness of Wales in both a European and international context. Optional programmes can include qualifications such as GCSEs, A levels, BTECs and NVQs. The core programme is marked pass or fail.

14-19 Diploma

14-19 Diplomas provide learners with the opportunity for practical work related experience as well as classroom based learning. They are designed to develop the skills required by employers and universities. There are fourteen diplomas currently available in England, in subjects such as Construction and the Built Environment, Hair and Beauty Studies and Retail Business. Within the context of a particular subject area functional skills are also developed in English, Maths and ICT. Diploma's typically take 1 to 2 years to complete, depending on the level and are available at three levels; Foundation (NQF levlel 1), Higher (NQF level 2 ) and for those over 16, Advanced (NQF level 3). 14 -19 Diplomas are marked A* to U, the exact grading scale varies depending on the level of qualification you take.

Skills based qualifications

These qualifications develop skills in literacy, numeracy, information, communication and technology and language and communication skills.

Core Skills

Core Skills qualifications develop the skills needed in life and work. They are the Scottish equivalent of Key Skills and Functional Skills. Core Skills can be completed automatically with some Standard/Higher qualifications and some SVQs or as stand-alone qualifications within work-based learning or as part of modern apprenticeships. They are available in Communication, Information and Communication Technology, Numeracy, Problem Solving and Working with Others at levels 3 to 6 on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

Essential Skills Wales and Essential Skills Northern Ireland

ESW (Essential Skills Wales) was introduced in September 2010 to replace the Key Skills and Basic Skills qualifications. It is available in three subjects, Communication, Application of Number and Information Communication Technology. They are suitable for learners wanting to develop the practical skills needed in everyday life, such as reading, writing, and numeracy and using a computer. They are available in 5 levels from Entry level to level 4. At Entry level assessment is test based and at levels 1 to 4 you are required to produce a portfolio.

Essential Skills Northern Ireland are also designed to develop the skillls needed for everyday situations. They are geared towards adults but are increasingly taken by young people. They are available in Literacy and Numeracy at Entry levels 1-3 and Communication and Application of number at levels 1 and 2. The literacy and numeracy assessments are test based , while the level 1 and 2 qualifications are assessed both by test and a student portfolio.

Functional Skills

Functional Skills are a suite of qualfications designed to replace the Skills for Life and Key Skills qualifications. They are being trialled on a three year scheme in England and are being offered at Entry level, level 1 and level 2. They are available in Maths, English and Information Communication Technology to learners aged 14 and over(although younger learners can take them). They are focused on the application of these skills in practical, real life scenarios. Each Functional skill qualfication requires you to pass an end exam. Functional Skills contribute to other qualifications such as the Apprenticeships , 14-19 Diplomas and GCSEs.

Key Skills

Key Skills qualifications are designed to help learners improve their abilities in work, education, or at home. There are no entry requirements and are often studied alongside GCSEs. The main key skills are Communication, Application of Number and Information Communication Technology, with three wider key skills in Working with Others, Improving Own Learning and Performance, and Problem Solving. They are available at NQF levels 1-4 and can be taken by learners at the level most suitable for them in schools, colleges and training providers. At levels 2, 3 and 4 they can count towards a UCAS application to study at Higher Education Institutions.

Skills for Life

Skills for Life qualifications are typically taken by learners over sixteen that have left compulsory education and do not have GCSEs (or equivalent) in Maths, English and ICT. They are for learners wanting to develop skills needed in everyday life, such as reading, writing or maths. Entry Level courses consist of tasks which are assessed by teachers. At NQF levels 1 and 2 learners are assessed by 40 multiple choice questions, which can be taken online or on paper. These assessments are called National Basic Skills Tests are marked pass or fail and can be taken as many times as a the learner wants. These qualifications are suitable for learners that want to boost their confidence in their own skills, improve their CVs, or re-enter education and progress onto programmes such as NVQs. There are courses available in Adult Literacy and Adult Numeracy, ICT (at entry level) and in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

Vocational qualifications

These qualifications are designed to develop work related skills in a particular subject area.


BTECs are available in different levels, from Entry Level in developing the initial skills for everyday life, up to short course professional development qualifications at NQF levels 4 to 7. They are suitable for learners of a wide range of ages in work related subjects, with courses available in fields such as Art and Design, Business Studies, IT and Media. BTECs combine the development of practical skills needed for the workplace with the necessary theory in that subject area. The main types of BTEC are graded distinction merit, pass or some variation of that grading scheme.

Foundation Degrees

Foundation degrees are vocational courses which combine work related learning in particular subject area with the development of study skills and the general skills needed for work . They are flexible programmes that can be studied part time, in a work-based environment or through distance learning. Foundation degrees are developed in partnerships between universities, employers and colleges. In similarity to Bachelor degrees they are divided into two sectors, Arts (FdA) and Sciences (FdSc). They are available in hundreds of subjects from Environmental Cleaning Management to Offender Management and Sports Therapy.  They are suitable for a wide range of learners, who may be looking to change their career path, develop their career prospects, or enter Higher Education at a later stage of their life. They take two years full time to complete and can be topped up with an additional full time years study to gain a full Bachelor's Degree. You can be assessed in a wide variety of ways including through project work, practical work and exams.

Higher National Certificates (HNC) and Higher National Diplomas (HND)

HNCs and HNDs give learners the skills required to be effective in a particular field of employment. These qualifications are often accepted towards membership of professional bodies such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). To gain entry onto these courses you typicaly need to have passed one A level or equivalent. An HNC typically takes one year to complete full time, while the HNC requires two years of full time study to complete. A completed HNC can enable a learner to progress to the second year of a degree programme while an HND can enable entry to a second or third year of a degree. They are available in a wide range of work related subject areas including Agriculture, Construction and Civil Engineering and Sports and Exercise Sciences. They are marked pass, merit and distinction.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ)and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ)

NVQs develop skills specific to a vocational area through practical, work orientated tasks. NVQs are based on national occupational standards. These standards define what skills are required to do a job competently in a particular industry or sector. NVQs can be taken at work, in college or as part of apprenticeship. NVQs are available in a wide range of subjects, including Sales, Marketing and Distribution, Construction and Property and Health and Social care. They are available to young people and adults and are available at levels 1 to 5 (please note that the level 4 NVQ is equivalent to an NQF level 5 and the level 5 NVQ is equivalent to an NQF level 7). Learners are assessed on portfolios and practical assignements by a qualified assessor. That assessor will also observe tasks being performed and will make a judgement on both the knowlege and skills demonstrated by the learner. Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) are equivalent to NVQ's.There are 5 levels of SVQs, with a wide range of courses available. For more information visit the SQA website.

Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates

Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates are for graduates that wish to improve their knowledge in either an academic or vocational field. They are available in a wide range of work orientated fields such as Business Management and Travel, Tourism and Hospitality. They often take between 9-12 months to be completed if studied full time. The method of delivery will vary greatly depending on the subject and learners may be assessed through research projects, coursework or examinations. They are graded at Distinction, Merit, Pass and Fail. They can be 'topped up' by further study to become a full Master's Degree at many Higher Education Institutions.

Bachelor Degrees, Masters Degrees and Doctorates

These qualifications develop advanced skills in a particular subject area. Please note that many Degrees can be strongly work related.

Bachelor Degrees

Bachelor degrees are commonly divided into two types; Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Sciences (BSc) but there are other variations available, such as a Bachelor of Medicine (MB). They take 3 years to complete full time (or 4 if they feature a year of work experience or studying abroad). They can also be studied part time, and through distance/flexible learning. Bachelor's degrees are graded as First Class Honours, Upper Second Class Honours (2:1), Lower Second Class Honours (2:2) and Third Class Honours. Bachelor Degrees are available in an increasingly wide field of subjects, from BA Film Studies, BSc Mechanical Engineering and degrees developing specific skills in an occupation such as BSc Radiotherapy and Oncology. Upon the completion of Bachelor Degrees, graduates have the option of entering into graduate level employment or further specialisation in their chosen field through a Masters degree or Doctorate.

Masters Degrees

A Masters degree offers learners the chance to specialise and develop advanced skills in a particular field. Many Masters programmes require learners to conduct high levels of independent research. Assessment usually consists of a number of written assignments, reports, presentations and projects coupled with an end of year dissertation. A Masters Degree typically takes 12 months or more to complete, if studied full time. They are often graded at Distinction, Merit, Pass and Fail. The types of Masters include: Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc) Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Law (LLM) and Master of Research (MRes). Masters Degrees enable access to specialised forms of graduate employment or progression onto a Doctorate.


Doctorates are an original piece of research undertaken by a learner at a University that has the facilities, expertise and funding required to support research programmes. They typically take a minimum of three years full time study to complete, although can take much longer. The first year of a Doctorate is focused on planning and conducting the necessary research. The final year of study is normally focused on producing the dissertation highlighting the principal findings from research undertaken. They are often graded pass or fail, although it is possible to receive a distinction if the work is viewed as making a substantial contribution to a particular field of study. Doctorates are suitable for learners wishing to develop a highly specialised level of expertise within a particular subject area. Many doctorate programmes, once completed and passed, lead to the qualification Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)