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Qualification types


Do you know your GCSEs from your BTECs? This section explains the most common types of qualifications for young people.


GCSEs are usually taken at age 16, at the end of school year 11. They are also suitable for adults who are returning to study.  
GCSEs are offered across Levels 1 and 2 of the Regilated Qualifications Framework (RQF). Find out more about levels here.  They are assessed using both coursework and exams.
Students usually need to achieve a number of GCSE passes before starting out on a Further education programme (for those aged 16 or over). If they have not achieved a grade C in English or maths, there will be a need to re-take these alongside their studies. Those with a grade D will usually re-take GCSEs. Those with a lower grade will usually take Functional Skills examinations.


The A-level or “Advanced Level” is offered by schools and colleges for students aged 16 and over. They are designed to help people move into Higher Education.
A-levels are usually a two-year course taken after students have achieved their GCSEs. Students will normally be required to have achieved at least five GCSEs at grade C or above to be accepted onto an A-level programme.
Students will begin making their choices and applying for Higher education programmes, using predicted grades, by the start of the second year. They will generally need to study three A-levels to gain enough points for university. 
The government has recently made a number of changes to A-level programmes to improve standards, including:
  • Removing the AS-level, so students cannot walk away with a qualification after the first year
  • All assessment is by exam only (no coursework) at the end of the two-year programme  


Many young people will choose to take a BTEC qualification after completing their GCSEs. They are full-time programmes of study that can last for between one and two years. They help give students the skills they need to move on to Higher Education or work.
BTECs are sometimes called vocational qualifications, meaning they are related to industry sectors such as hair and beauty, media or engineering. 
Further Education colleges provide the greatest variety of BTEC courses. Here are some more facts about BTECs.
  • BTECs are made up of a number of units, which are usually assessed through assignments that are both set and marked by the teacher or course tutor. 
  • Assignments can include tests, research, essays, projects, investigations, artwork, fieldwork, experiments and often link theory with practical exercises. Some BTECs contain externally marked tests, which may be paper-based or taken on a computer.
  • BTECs are graded using a Pass (P), Merit (M), Distinction (D) and Distinction* (D*) scale. Depending on the size of the course, students may receive one, two or three grades.
  • Level 3 BTEC diplomas are the equivalent of three A-levels for the purposes of applying to and entering university. The grades students achieve will be converted to points – the system used for university applications.


NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) can only be gained in the workplace. To complete an NVQ, students need to prove that they can do certain work-related tasks. They are assessed by portfolio (building up evidence of what they’ve done at work) and by observations from an assessor.
NVQs do not have to be completed in a specified amount of time. They can be taken by full-time employees or by school and college students with a work placement or part-time job that enables them to develop the appropriate skills. There are no age limits and no special entry requirements.

HNCs and HNDs

HNCs and HNDs can help people start a career or progress in their existing career. Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are work-related, or vocational, higher education qualifications. They are Level 5 qualifications.
Both qualifications are provided by Further and Higher education colleges. They are valued by employers and can also count towards membership of professional bodies and other employer organisations.   
HNCs take about one year to complete full-time and two years part-time. HNDs take two years full-time and can also be taken part-time, which takes longer. HNCs can allow entry into the second year of a degree, while HNDs can allow entry into the second or third year.
Find out more about university-level programmes at Activate Learning colleges.

Foundation Degrees

Foundation Degree is a degree level qualification which combines academic study with workplace learning. Subjects are related to particular industries and professions.
A Foundation Degree is the equivalent to two thirds of a full honours degree and is a flexible qualification, allowing part-time or full-time study. A full-time Foundation Degree will usually take about two years to complete, and part-time courses may take longer. 
Many students choose to ‘top-up’ to a full honours degree by taking a further year of full-time study. Others progress directly into employment.