In the UK, all qualifications range from Entry level to PhDs at Level 8.
It’s important to know what level a qualification is as they are often mentioned in:
- Job adverts. For example ‘Applicants must hold a relevant Level 3 qualification in childcare’
- College courses. For example ‘You will normally need to have at least one of the following Level 2 qualifications, a BTEC First Certificate or at least four GCSEs grade A* to C’
If you have a career in mind, always check the level and type of qualification needed. To find out more take a look at the 'How to become' section in the jobs listed on Job Information.
Qualifications may differ between Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
The Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) describes the qualifications system in Wales.
It helps to understand and compare qualifications and learning.
The framework shows the levels for learning from Entry level to the most advanced (Level 8). The level shows how challenging a course is. The higher the level, the more challenging the qualification is.
Find out more about the CQFW on the gov.wales website.
Types of qualifications
Qualifications can be done in schools, colleges, in the workplace or in the community and learning centres.
Entry level qualifications can help learners to:
- Build their skills
- Increase their knowledge in a subject
- Boost their confidence
They are awarded at 3 sub-levels of 1, 2 and 3, with 3 being the most difficult.
GCSEs are the main general qualifications taken by 16 year olds, usually in full-time education. They are designed to give you the essential skills for everyday life and are used as entry qualifications to jobs, further learning or training.
GCSEs are level 1 or 2 courses (depending on the grade achieved) and are available in a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. They are available to students of any age in schools, colleges and other learning centres.
GCSEs can be taken in Welsh or English.
GCSEs are usually achieved in 2 years and are graded from A* to G in Wales:
- Grades A* to C Credit and Qualifications Framework (CQFW Level 2)
- Grades D to G (CQFW Level 1)
- Grade U is Unclassified
GCSEs in Wales are changing to reflect the Curriculum for Wales. Find out about the changes and timeline on Qualifications Wales.
In England, GCSEs are graded on a scale from 9-1. Depending on the GCSEs offered in your school or college some of your GCSE qualifications may be graded 9-1.
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AS and A levels
Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) levels are the main general qualifications at Level 3. They are available in a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. They are usually taken at age 16 to 19.
A levels are used as entry to higher education courses at level 4, 5 or 6, further training, or a job. A levels are a traditional route for entry to university and higher education and training for many professions. Find out more about AS and A levels on the Qualifications Wales website.
A level grades
A levels are usually completed in two years and are graded A*to E.
Common features of A levels in Wales, England and Northern Ireland include:
- Grades A to E for AS levels
- Graded A*to E for A levels
- The amount of work in AS levels is approximately half that of the full A level
- All exams are taken at the end of the course (linear qualifications)
Find out about the A level differences in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Gov.uk.
If you're thinking about applying for university your qualifications and grades are given numerical value by UCAS. You can find out about the UCAS tariff points and use the UCAS tariff calculator to find out how many UCAS points your qualifications are worth.
Business and Technology Education Council (BTECs) are vocational or career-based qualifications. They combine practical and theory learning. They give a broad knowledge of a sector.
BTECs can be studied from Entry level to professional level (Level 7).
They can be studied as a standalone course or alongside other qualifications in schools, colleges and in the workplace.
They are 3 levels of BTECs:
- BTEC Firsts. Available from Entry level to level 2
- BTEC Nationals. Available from level 3
- BTEC Apprenticeships. Available from level 2 to 5 in different sectors
BTECs are graded using:
- Pass (P)
- Merit (M)
- Distinction (D)
- Distinction* (D*)
- Unclassified (U)
Depending on the size of the course, learners may receive one, two or three grades.
BTECs qualify for UCAS points depending on the type of qualification and the grades achieved. They are accepted by many universities for entry to different courses. Check UCAS for individual course requirements.
Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF)/National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are work-based qualifications and are available at all levels. They provide you with skills to do a specific job.
QCF/NVQs cover a variety of careers. They are delivered in the workplace or somewhere set up to be like a workplace.
They are not linked to a set course or programme. QCF/NVQs are broken down into small units so that they can be delivered and assessed flexibly at a place of work.
The Welsh Baccalaureate (Bacc) Qualification is for 14 to 19 year old students in Wales. It prepares learners for employment, further study and life.
Welsh Baccalaureate levels
The Welsh Baccalaureate is awarded at three levels:
- Foundation (Level 1) taken in Key Stage 4 alongside GCSEs or post-16 alongside vocational qualifications
- National (Level 2) taken alongside GCSEs or post-16 alongside vocational qualifications
- Advanced (Level 3) taken alongside A levels or other Level 3 qualifications. Find out more about the Advanced Skills Baccalaureate Wales on Qualifications Wales
There are no examinations in the Welsh Bacc. The qualification is made up of a ‘Skills Challenge Certificate’ alongside supporting qualifications.
Some universities will accept the Welsh Bacc, but always check the entry requirements of each university on UCAS.
Use the UCAS tariff calculator to find out how many UCAS points your qualifications are worth.
Essential Skills Wales
Essential Skills Wales were previously knows as Key Skills or Basic Skills.
They are designed to develop the skills that learners need for further learning, employment and life. They cover four key essential skills:
- Application of number
- Digital literacy
Essential Skills Qualifications are available from entry levels 1 to 3 and higher levels 1 to 3.
They are aimed at 14 to 19 year olds in schools and colleges and are generally studied alongside other subjects such as GCSEs, A levels or vocational courses.
Find out more about Essential Skills Wales qualifications at Qualifications Wales.
Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)
A Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) is a higher education qualification offered in the UK. It is a recognised stand-alone qualification.
Certificates of Higher Education grades are equivalent to a level 4 qualification and can take a year (full-time) or two years (part-time) to complete.
Students must obtain a minimum of 120 credits to achieve the qualification. Credits are based on each individual module taken in the subject.
The completion of a CertHE can lead to a second year of a suitable Foundation degree or an honours degree programme.
Higher National Certificates (HNCs) / Diplomas (HNDs)
HNCs and HNDs are work-related courses and can be studied in colleges and universities. They give learners the skills and knowledge that are needed to work in a particular job or sector.
A HNC is a Level 4 qualification and takes one year full-time to complete and two years part-time. A HNC can progress onto a Foundation degree.
A HND is a Level 5 qualification and takes two years full-time to complete. They can also be taken part-time but will take longer to complete.
A HNC and HND can be ‘topped up’ to a become a bachelor's degree.
Degrees are higher education qualifications. Degrees can be studied at 4 levels:
Foundation degrees are a combination of academic work and work experience to gain workplace skills. It is equivalent to a Level 5 qualification.
It is useful for those who wish to study whilst working or gain professional and technical skills to further their career.
A Foundation degree usually takes two years full-time to complete or longer for part-time students. A Foundation degree can be ‘topped up’ to gain full degree.
This is the most common type of undergraduate degree. It’s a Level 6 qualification and can be taken in different subjects.
Depending on the subject studied, the type of bachelor's degree awarded will differ. The most common bachelor's degree awards are:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA)
- Bachelor of Science (BSc)
- Bachelor of Law (LLB)
- Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)
A bachelor's degree can take 3 to 4 years to complete.
To start a bachelor's degree, you will need to have met the institution’s entry requirements for that course. The number of UCAS tariff points you need to get on a specific course will depend on course and university requirements.
A bachelor's degree is usually the minimum requirement for many professions.
A master's degree is taken after achieving a bachelor's degree. It is a level 7 qualification and is awarded to students who show a very high level of knowledge about a subject or topic. It is an intense course and usually involves specific research and writing a thesis.
A full-time master's degree will last around 1 to 2 years. Part-time study can last between 2 to 4 years.
Depending on the subject studied, the type of master's degree awarded will differ. The most common master's degree awards are:
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Science (MSc)
PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. A PhD is a post graduate degree and is a level 8 qualification. This is the highest level of degree.
The degree involves independent research on an original topic and can take 3 or more years to complete. It includes writing a thesis or dissertation based on extensive and original research.
To do a PhD, most universities expect learners to have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but some may accept a bachelor’s degree.
Postgraduate diplomas and certificates
Postgraduate diplomas and certificates allow learners to build on the skills and knowledge gained in a degree and are available in a variety of subjects.
Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are level 7 qualifications.
A full-time postgraduate diploma takes around 30 weeks to complete with a full-time postgraduate certificate taking around 15 weeks to complete. They can also be completed on a part-time basis.
Some professions ask for a Postgraduate qualification such as Teaching, PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) and Social Work (PGDip in Social Work).
Find out about postgraduate diplomas and certificates on the Prospects website.
Professional and industry qualifications, accreditations and registrations
Professional and industry qualifications are available across all areas of work at various levels.
In some areas of work accreditations or registrations are a statutory requirement, for example in many healthcare roles and the finance industry. These qualifications are accredited and regulated by professional bodies in each area of work.
Examples of industry qualifications, accreditations and registrations include:
- Doctors have to be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) to practice
- Chartered Surveyors should be RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) qualified
- Nurses and Midwives need to be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC)
- Chartered Accountants need the ACCA (Associate Chartered Certified Accountant) qualification
- Skilled construction workers are not legally required, but usually need to hold a CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card to work on construction sites
- Gas Engineers must be registered on the Gas Safe Register by law
Curriculum for Wales
There is a new Curriculum for Wales for all learners aged 3 to 16. The new curriculum started September 2022. It will be used for all secondary school pupils by the 2026/27 academic year.
All primary and many secondary schools and settings across Wales have begun to implement the new curriculum and by the end of roll out in 2026 all schools in Wales will follow the new Curriculum for Wales.
Each school and setting will develop its own curriculum to allow their learners to become:
- Ambitious and capable, ready to learn throughout their lives
- Enterprising and creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
- Ethical and informed citizens, ready to be citizens of Wales and the world
- Healthy and confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society
Disciplines (currently referred to as subjects) within the Curriculum for Wales will fit under 6 Areas of Learning and Experience (Areas) which are:
- Expressive arts
- Health and wellbeing
- Languages, literacy, and communication
- Mathematics and numeracy
- Science and technology
Find out more about the Curriculum for Wales on hwb.gov.wales.
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