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 is a large variety of qualifications available so they are grouped together into levels to show how they compare and what other qualifications they can lead to.

Qualification frameworks 

In the UK, most qualifications taken through work, school, college or university, fit into one of nine levels (12 in Scotland). The higher the level, the harder the qualification. 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. 

Knowing about the different levels means that you can compare qualifications and identify what you need for your chosen career.

Four qualifications frameworks are in use within the UK:

  • Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) for England and Northern Ireland
  • Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW)
  • Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF)
  • Framework for Higher Education Qualifications for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ)

Qualification levels

The table below shows some examples of qualifications at each level under RQF and FHEQ, the main frameworks for Northern Ireland. The list is not exhaustive.

Qualification level Examples of qualifications What they give you
Entry
  • Entry level awards, certificates and diplomas
  • Essential skills at entry level
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning in everyday situations
  • not geared towards specific occupations
One
  • GCSE grades D-G
  • level one awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Key Skills level 1
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • Music grades 1 to 3
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning with guidance or supervision
  • may be linked to job competence
Two
  • GCSE grades A*- C
  • intermediate apprenticeships
  • Level 2 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • OCR Nationals
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • Music grades 4 and 5
  • good knowledge and understanding of a subject
  • ability to do a variety of tasks with some guidance or supervision
  • suitable for many job roles
Three
  • AS and A levels
  • Access to Higher Education diploma
  • advanced apprenticeship
  • International Baccalaureate
  • NVQs
  • BTEC diplomas, certificates and awards
  • BTEC Nationals
  • OCR Nationals
  • Music grades 6 to 8
  • 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
Four
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • HNCs
  • Certificaties of Higher Education (CertHE)
  • Higher apprenticeship
  • specialist learning, involving detailed analysis of a high level of information and knowledge in an area of work or study
  • ​suitable for people working in technical and professional jobs, and/or managing and developing others
Five
  • HNDs
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • Foundation degrees
  • Diploma of higher education (DipHE)
  • 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
  • suitable for people working as higher grade technicians, professionals or managers
Six
  • Bachelor's degrees
  • Professional Graduate Certificate in Education
  • Graduate diplomas
  • BTEC Advanced Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • degree apprenticeship
  • a specialist, high-level knowledge of an area of work or study, to allow you to use your own ideas and research in response to complex problems and situations
  • suitable for people working as knowledge-based professionals or in professional management positions

 

Seven
  • Master's degrees
  • Postgraduate Certificate in Education
  • 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
  • suitable for senior professionals and managers

 

Eight
  • Doctoral degrees
  • specialist awards, certificates and diplomas
  • opportunity to develop new and creative approaches that extend or redefine existing knowledge or professional practice
  • suitable for leading experts or practitioners in a particular field

More information on the frameworks and associated levels, including comparisons with other countries can be found on the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments (CCEA) website.

Comparing qualification levels from outside Northern Ireland

There are 12 qualification levels in Scotland. These are set out in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

Irish qualifications are set out in the Irish National Framework of Qualifications.

You can compare European qualification levels and also get information on specific qualifications that occupy those levels in national frameworks.

You can also contact the UK National Academic Recognition Information Centre (UK NARIC) to compare a UK qualification with any non-UK qualification (there may be a fee for this subject to your request).   

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