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Qualifications: What the different levels mean

A qualification shows employers,teachers and learners what you have learnt and what you can do as a result of that learning. There are a large number of qualifications available so they are grouped together into levels to show how they compare and what other qualifications they can lead to.

The National Qualification Framework (NQF)

In the UK all qualifications, be they GCSEs, part-time diplomas or certificates, fit into one of nine levels. This applies to qualifications taken through work or at school, college or university. Knowing about the different levels means that you can understand where your course or study fits in. It also allows you to see how you can progress from one level to another.

The National Qualifications Framework, known as NQF, sets out the level at which a qualification can be recognised in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

Qualifications in the NQF are grouped together according to their difficulty. They are given a level from entry level to level 8. The levels are based on the standards of knowledge, skill and competence needed for each qualification. Qualifications at the same level can be very different in terms of content and the length of time they take to complete.

NQF level Examples of qualifications What they give you
Entry
  • Entry level certificates
  • Essential Skills at entry level
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning in everyday situations
  • not geared towards specific occupations
1
  • GCSEs grades D-G
  • BTEC Introductory Diplomas and Certificates
  • OCR Nationals
  • Key Skills level 1
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning with guidance or supervision
  • may be linked to job competence
2
  • GCSEs grades A*-C
  • BTEC First Diplomas and Certificates
  • OCR Nationals
  • Key Skills level 2
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • good knowledge and understanding of a subject
  • ability to perform variety of tasks with some guidance or supervision
  • appropriate for many job roles
3
  • A levels
  • Advanced Extension Awards
  • GCE in applied subjects
  • International Baccalaureate
  • Key Skills level 3
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • BTEC Nationals
  • OCR Nationals
  • ability to gain or apply a range of knowledge, skills and understanding, at a detailed level
  • appropriate if you plan to go to university, work independently, or (in some cases) supervise and train others in their field of work
4
  • Key Skills level 4
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • specialist learning, involving detailed analysis of a high level of information and knowledge in an area of work or study
  • appropriate for people working in technical and professional jobs, and/or managing and developing others
5
  • HNCs and HNDs
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • ability to increase the depth of knowledge and understanding of an area of work or study, so you can respond to complex problems and situations
  • involves high level of work expertise and competence in managing and training others
  • appropriate for people working as higher grade technicians, professionals or managers
6
  • National Diploma in Professional Production Skills
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • a specialist, high-level knowledge of an area of work or study, to enable you to use your own ideas and research in response to complex problems and situations
  • appropriate for people working as knowledge-based professionals or in professional management positions
7
  • Diploma in Translation
  • BTEC Advanced Professional Diplomas, Certificates and Awards
  • highly developed and complex levels of knowledge, enabling you to develop original responses to complicated and unpredictable problems and situations
  • appropriate for senior professionals and managers
8
  • specialist awards
  • opportunity to develop new and creative approaches that extend or redefine existing knowledge or professional practice
  • appropriate for leading experts or practitioners in a particular field

Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF)

The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) contains vocational (or work-related) qualifications, available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

These qualificatons are made up of units that are worth credits. You can study units at your own pace and build these up to full qualifications of different sizes over time.

Units and qualifications also range in difficulty, from entry level to level 8 (similar to the levels in the NQF).

Framework for Higher Education Qualifications

The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) contains descriptions of all the main higher education qualifications. It applies to:

  • degrees
  • diplomas
  • certificates and other academic awards granted by a university or higher education college (but not honorary degrees and higher doctorates)

The FHEQ broadly corresponds with levels 4 to 8 of the National Qualifications Framework in terms of the demands the qualifications place on learners.

Comparison of qualification levels

To compare the qualification levels between the NQF, QCF and FHEQ Frameworks, please visit The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) website:

Useful links