The diagram above shows how English qualifications we all know about fit into the QCF framework. It illustrates in pictorial form the complicated-sounding concepts of levels, awards, certificates, diplomas and credits.

Comparing qualifications

To find out how one qualification compares to another you need to look at the level, size and content of the qualifications. Level refers to the level of difficulty which ranges from entry level up to level 8. The “size” of a qualification is an indication of the amount of study time involved expressed as “awards”, “certificates” and “diplomas” in ascending size. The content simply means the topics or subject matter studied.

As well as having award, certificate or diploma in the title a qualification will also have an official “credit value”. There are three size ranges of qualifications on the QCF: an award which has 1 to 12 credits, a certificate which has 13 to 36 credits and a diploma which has 37 credits or more. A credit represents 10 hours of learning.

Some web sites will refer to the number of “guided learning hours” typically needed to complete a qualification rather than its credit value. This is just an alternative way of indicating its size.

So to summarise: each officially recognised qualification has a level between entry level and level 8. Qualifications at the same level are a similar level of demand or difficulty. The content and size of qualifications at the same level may be quite different.

Higher Education

Technically, HE qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland come under the ‘Framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland’.

All three countries have a shared approach to higher education. Scotland and the Irish Republic have their own systems.

Non-HE qualifications in these three countries are also broadly similar with only minor variations in the case of Wales.


All Scottish qualifications are regulated by the ‘Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework’


Although they are very similar to those in England and Northern Ireland, qualifications in Wales are regulated by the ‘Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales’


Qualifications are regulated by the ‘National Framework of Qualifications for Ireland’


Update: the authorities have decided (for England and Northern Ireland) to abolish the QCF framework at some point in 2015 and replace it with a simple framework for all qualifications regulated by Ofqual. This will be called the ‘Framework of Regulated Qualifications’.

Under the proposed new approach, qualifications would no longer have to be unitised or credit-bearing, but could be if that was the best way for the qualification to meet its purpose. There will no longer be the current arrangement for different awarding bodies to share some common units between their various qualifications. The new framework will include a simple description of each qualification’s “level” and “size”.

“Both the evidence from our review and from our consultation has led us to conclude that the QCF rules should be removed because they impose a one-size-fits-all approach to the design of qualifications, which is not always consistent with the development of high-quality vocational qualifications that meet employers’ needs.

We have, therefore, decided to withdraw the QCF rules in the near future. When we lift the rules good qualifications that currently meet them will be able to stay, but we will expect qualifications that aren’t valid to be redeveloped or withdrawn.”