British qualifications never seem to stay put for very long as politicians are constantly wanting to make changes to “improve” things. such as the recently announced T Levels in England – heralded as the technical equivalent to A Levels from September 2019 and changes to the GCSE grading system in England from this year. The British system of qualifications is very complex. Scotland has always had a different education system to that traditionally offered in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
To add to the complexity, devolution means that Wales, for instance, offers other educational opportunities, such as the employability skills focussed Welsh Baccalaureate. When you add all that to the natural complexity of the industrial, commercial and public service jobs landscape, the inevitable result is an alphabet soup of different, competing qualifications. Parents understandably find all of this confusing. This article aims to cut through this confusion.
The first thing to get clear is the distinction between “academic” (sometimes called “general”) and “vocational” qualifications. Then we’ll look at the two main types of vocational qualifications.
The difference between Academic and Vocational Qualifications
Academic qualifications are the easiest to understand. They are sometimes referred to as general qualifications and are associated with the traditional education system, which includes GCSEs, AS & A Levels (called Nationals and Highers in Scotland) and a degree from a University or Higher Education Institution (HEI). Other general qualifications that are less well known (often depending on where you live) are the Cambridge iGCSE, the International Baccalaureate (IB), the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma and, in higher education, the Diploma of Higher Education.
Typical academic courses include things like English, History, Biology and Art. The main characteristic of these qualifications is that they focus heavily on gaining knowledge and are assessed by exams. In this country, there is a strong bias towards these qualifications which results in many young people who would be better off on a vocational course rather than studying (and having problems with) academic subjects.
Vocational qualifications are much more focused on skills and therefore not so much on what you know but on what you can do. Rather than covering a general subject, they are relevant to a specific job sector and focus on the practical abilities you need to get a job in that sector.
To give you an example – while a Mathematics GCSE teaches you a broad range of mathematical principles to develop your overall understanding of maths, a vocational qualification such as Level 3 Diploma in Accounting teaches you the maths skills you need as an accountant (alongside the other skills you need in such a role).
You shouldn’t take these distinctions too literally. It is a matter of emphasis and focus. Vocational courses do (of course) include knowledge and some academic courses have a vocational flavour. Examples would include GCSE Art, A Level Business Studies or a BSc degree in Engineering.
Vocational qualifications include:
1) professional body qualifications
2) a licence to practice in a particular job role and/or industry
3) qualifications that demonstrate competence in a particular job role
4) an introduction to an industry such as engineering, social care etc.
The first two are very specialist and are often more relevant to adults than school leavers. They are really special examples of type 3.
Types 3 and 4 are the main categories of vocational qualifications for young people.
Type 3 qualifications are sometimes spoken about as “technical” or “occupational” qualifications. They will usually have the word “certificate” or “diploma” in their title. NVQs are a well-known example of this type of qualification. They are very practical and job specific and much (if not all) of the learning goes on in the workplace under the guidance of an experienced member of staff.
Type 4 qualifications, on the other hand, are studied full time in a sixth form or college and are sometimes referred to as “applied general” qualifications.
Comparing Vocational Qualifications
The qualifications awarded to vocational students (sometimes referred to as “learners”) are at different levels of difficulty. This is to ensure that they can start learning at the right level and then if they want, progress to the next stage. The organisations which are licensed by the government to issue these qualifications are known as awarding bodies (or examination boards) and examples include City & Guilds, OCR and Edexcel/BTEC.
To find out how one qualification compares to another you need to look at the level, size and content of the qualifications. This holds good no matter which awarding body has issued the qualification because all vocational qualifications must fit within an official “framework”.
Understanding qualifications levels
Around the world, qualifications are mapped by individual countries against frameworks to create registers of approved qualifications. This means that they can ensure qualifications, exams and tests which are funded through government-backed education are fit for purpose. These frameworks enable qualifications to be portable ie employers and others in different countries can understand what individuals can offer through the services of organisations like Naric, the National Recognition Information Centre, and sister organisations across the EU which help map and certify qualifications to different frameworks. This is particularly important for large sized employing organisations. so they can check qualifications are appropriate.
In the UK, the different devolved countries all have different frameworks:
England uses the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) to admit general and vocational qualifications onto the Register of Regulated Qualifications which is regulated by Ofqual, the “exams watchdog”, a UK Government department responsible for accrediting qualifications. These include GCSEs and A Levels.
Northern Ireland‘s equivalent to Ofqual is the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) also uses Ofqual’s RQF.
Introduced in 2015, the RQF replaces the previous Qualifications and Credit Framework, and the National Qualifications Framework (2008).
Wales has its own version of Ofqual, Qualifications in Wales, the regulator of non-degree qualifications and the qualifications system in Wales. Like Ofqual, they have a register of all qualifications which have been approved or designated for teaching in Wales for learners under 19, excluding Higher Education. QiF oversees the Qualifications and Credits Framework for Wales.
Scotland has a different system for qualifications, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework which maps out the range of qualifications including Nationals and Highers (similar to GCSEs and A Levels) as well as vocational qualifications and keeps the database of registered qualifications. Whereas the rest of the UK has nine levels, Scotland’s Framework has 12.levels.
Higher Education is less complicated and uses one approach across the UK. It has its own regulatory body, the QAA, (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) which is responsible for ensuring world class quality via the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) which maps to similar frameworks elsewhere in the world.
Remember that not all qualifications and subjects will be available at a particular school, college or apprenticeship training centre. To find out which qualifications are available locally you can use the course search tool at GOV.UK or search the UCAS Progress database.
Remember too, that from September 2019, students in England will be able to take T Levels, an alternative technical qualification to A Level and offering 15 different routes so if your teen is more suited to this type of learning and has a keen interest in one of these subjects, T Levels might be just the thing for them, as long as the path to university is properly open to them if they want it. (Time will tell on that front!).
Occupational (or ‘technical’) Qualifications
The great majority of these are the well-known National Vocational Qualifications or NVQs. NVQs are work-related, competence-based qualifications. They reflect the skills and knowledge needed to do a job effectively and show that a candidate is competent in the area of work the NVQ “framework” represents.
NVQs are based on national occupational standards laid down by organisations called Sector Skills Councils. These standards are statements of performance that describe what competent people in a particular occupation are expected to know, understand and be able to do. There are no age limits and no special entry requirements and, within reason, NVQs do not have to be completed in a specified amount of time. They can be taken by full-time employees and apprentices or by school and college students with a work placement or part-time job that enables them to develop the appropriate skills.
Occupational vocational qualifications are normally assessed through on-the-job observation and questioning. Candidates also produce evidence to prove they have the competence to meet the standards required. Assessors sign off units when the candidates are ready. The assessor tests candidates’ knowledge, understanding and work-based performance to make sure they can demonstrate competence in the workplace.
So occupational qualifications (normally an NVQ) are intended for young people who have a clear idea about an occupation they want to pursue and are ready to specialise. They prepare students for a specific job role through workplace training (e.g. an apprenticeship) and assessment to confirm occupational competence. Although NVQs are technically being slowly phased out (see green box above) the replacement qualifications will often be similar (or exactly the same) in the way they operate so I fully expect people to use the term NVQs for many years to come.
Some occupational qualifications provide a ‘licence to practice’ e.g. gas installation or veterinary nursing or offer exemption from professional exams e.g. accountancy or engineering. They may also support progression to a specialist degree or higher education (HE) qualification that gives entry to an occupation e.g. many health professionals.
There are still some occupational qualifications which are not part of the NVQ system. For example:
- British Horse Society/EQL Certificate in Horse Care
- CACHE Diploma in Childcare and Education
- City & Guilds IVQ Technician Certificate
- NCFE Certificate in Retail Skills
- OCR Certificate/Diploma for IT Professionals
- Trinity Diploma in Performing (Speech and Drama)
Applied General Qualifications
These courses are for young people who want to continue their general education but to learn things that can be “applied” to later employment within a broadly defined group of occupations. They are designed to provide a broad, general education related to their chosen employment sector and, for this reason, are sometimes called “general vocational” courses. The employment sectors covered include:
- Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Care
- Arts, Media and Publishing
- Business, Administration and Law
- Construction, Planning and the Built Environment
- Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies
- Health, Public Services and Care
- Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
- Leisure, Travel and Tourism
- Preparation for Life and Work
- Retail and Commercial Enterprise
- Social Sciences
They are available at Levels 1 to 3 and are normally studied full time in school sixth forms and colleges. Those at Level 3 can be taken alongside AS and full A levels or on their own. You may hear them referred to as Advanced General Vocational courses. After completing one of these a young person can choose to either enter employment or progress to a higher education course.
These are the main kinds of applied general courses:
- 14-19 Diploma (being phased out)
- ASDAN Certificate (Personal Effectiveness)
- BTEC First Certificate/Diploma
- BTEC National Certificate/Diploma
- BTEC Certificate/Diploma/ Extended Diploma
- Diploma in Foundation Studies in Art and Design
- IFS Certificate/Diploma
- NCC Education Diploma in Business/IT
- NCFE Certificate/Diploma
- OCR Cambridge National Certificate/Diploma/Extended Diploma
- OCR Cambridge Technical Introductory Diploma/Subsidiary Diploma/Diploma/Extended Diploma
- WJEC Diploma
In practice, BTEC and OCR Cambridge courses are the most widely seen and cover the biggest range of occupations.
The Government are introducing a new performance measure in school and college league tables beginning in 2016. This will be called the TechBacc (technical baccalaureate) and will recognise the highest level of technical training achieved by students aged 16-19. To achieve the TechBacc, students will need to obtain:
- an approved level 3 tech level qualification
- an approved level 3 mathematics qualification
- the extended project qualification
Tech Levels are not a new qualification. Certain level 3 applied courses are being added to a government list of approved “Tech Levels” and only courses on this list will contribute towards the award of a TechBacc.
The Many Options Post-16
What this means in practice is that there is a range of qualifications that your child may be able to study after Year 11 and even more importantly, that they could progress on to later. The chart below shows some examples of how different qualifications compare to each other. This is followed by a brief description of each of the main kinds of qualification.
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 on from a general education course at Level 2 (GCSEs) to a BTEC Diploma at Level 3 (applied) in Sixth Form or College. After that, they might progress to a Level 4 Apprenticeship which includes an NVQ (occupational).
The chart is a general guide, so when applying for courses and Apprenticeships, you should always check carefully the specific entry requirements needed.
|Entry Level||Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Levels 4-8|
|General or Academic courses||See Foundation Learning (bottom row)||GCSE grade D-G; Functional Skills||GCSE grade A*-C; Functional Skills||A & AS Levels; International Baccalaureate; Pre-U||Degree; Dip HE; Post Graduate Degree (eg MA, MSc, PhD)|
|Applied Vocational courses||See Foundation Learning (below)||Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 1 (eg BTEC Introductory , Cambridge National at Level 1)||Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 2 (eg BTEC First, BTEC Diploma or Cambridge National at Level 2)||Awards, Certificates and Diplomas at Level 3 (eg BTEC National, BTEC Diploma, Cambridge National at Level 3, Tech Levels, Foundation Studies in Art and Design)||HNC/HND; Foundation Degree;Professional Diploma|
|Apprenticeships||Pre-Apprenticeship programme – part of Foundation Learning (below)||Pre-Apprenticeship programme – part of Foundation Learning (below)||Intermediate Apprenticeship – NVQ Level 2 plus technical certificate (eg BTEC Level 2)||Advanced Apprenticeship – NVQ Level 3 plus technical certificate (eg Cambridge National Level 3)||Higher Apprenticeship – NVQ 4/5 ( may also include 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 onto a Level 2 course, a job or an Apprenticeship|
Qualifications: a brief overview and definitions
NB: for NVQs, please see the Occupational Qualifications section above and for the Technical Baccalaureate, please see the TechBacc section above.