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Qualifications: What the different levels mean

Different types of qualifications are grouped together into various 'levels'. This can help you and employers to see how different qualifications compare and how one type can lead on to another.

Choosing the right qualification for you

If you're interested in gaining a qualification, choosing from the huge range available can seem daunting. But don't panic, there's lots of support and advice to help you pick a qualification that's right for you.

Advice for young people

For advice on learning and qualifications for 13 to 19-year-olds, contact a local Careers Adviser.

University and higher education

If you're thinking about getting a higher education qualification, there's lots of advice and information in the 'University and higher education' section.

Advice for adult learners

Get advice about qualifications for adult learners from the Careers Advice Service.

How different qualifications compare

You may hear people talking about qualification 'levels'. These levels are contained in three qualification 'frameworks':

  • National Qualifications Framework
  • Qualifications and Credit Framework
  • Framework for Higher Education Qualifications

National Qualifications Framework

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

The framework groups together qualifications that place similar demands on you as a learner. However, within any one level, qualifications can cover a wide mix of subjects and take different amounts of time to complete.

The NQF can also help you see how one type of qualification can lead on to other higher levels of qualifications.

Only qualifications that have been accredited by the three regulators for Northern Ireland, England and Wales can be included in the NQF. This ensures that all qualifications within the framework are of a high quality and meet the needs of learners and employers.

NQF level Examples of qualifications What they give you
  • Entry level certificates
  • Essential Skills at entry level
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning in everyday situations
  • not geared towards specific occupations
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

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, or FHEQ, has been designed by the higher education sector and 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.

FHEQ level Examples of qualifications
  • certificates of higher education
  • foundation degrees
  • ordinary (bachelors) degrees
  • diplomas of higher education and further education
  • higher national diplomas
  • other higher diplomas
  • bachelors degrees with honours
  • graduate certificates and graduate diplomas
  • masters degrees
  • postgraduate certificates
  • postgraduate diplomas
  • doctorates

Search for accredited qualifications

You can search for an accredited qualification on the Register of Regulated Qualifications

Useful links