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An Introduction to Qualifications

In the media and elsewhere, specific qualifications are often referred to without saying what they signify. This article will try to remedy that, and a good place to start is by distinguishing academic qualifications from vocational ones.

a) Academic.

Academic qualifications usually relate to subjects studied primarily to obtain knowledge and understanding rather than job-related skills. In ascending order, they are as follows:

These are exams taken in individual subjects at the end of Year 11 (Key Stage 4). They include English, maths, and science (all compulsory), and several additional choices selected from option groups. GCSEs are undertaken by all students even those who don't intend to study for further qualifications; for those who do continue their education, particular subjects or grades in these exams are often required for progression.

A and AS-Levels.
These are (respectively) one and two-year courses immediately following GCSEs, and taken in sixth form or at college. Entry usually requires good grades (A-C; 5-9) in at least five subjects, including English and maths. Most institutions offer between 20 and 30 subjects, from which a student typically picks from two to four. Careful choice is important, especially if he/she has a specific career in mind.

Most first (or undergraduate) degree courses are studied full-time at university, and last three or four years. They are viewed as essentially academic even when (in, for example, medicine, engineering, or marine biology) they constitute preparation for a specific profession. Subjects with no direct occupational content (such as English literature, philosophy, or history) are still vocationally useful, though, as the graduate status to which they lead confers eligibility for many good jobs. Most graduates earn the title Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc), with variations such as LLB (for those with law degrees) or BEng (for engineering subjects).

Higher Degrees.
Higher degrees can sometimes be studied part-time, but the majority are taken full-time, and last from one to three years. Only graduates who have performed well in their first degree are likely to be considered, and competition for most places is strong. Higher degrees often prove a route to especially challenging, satisfying, and well-paid work, though none of these is guaranteed. They come at two levels - masters and doctoral. The first leads to qualifications like MA (Master of Arts) or MSc (Master of Science), the second to a doctorate (PhD/DPhil).

b) Vocational.

'Vocational' is the term commonly used to describe qualifications relating to a specific kind of work, and where the emphasis is on acquiring skills rather than (just) knowledge. These are sometimes known generally by their examining body (e.g. BTEC or City and Guilds), but their occupational worth is often more usefully denoted by their title (such as certificate or diploma) or by the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) which attaches to them. Most are offered at the following levels.

NVQ 1.
The most basic level, usually acquired by completing a one-year college course which needs few or no GCSE grades.

NVQ 2.
The next level up from NVQ1, also usually obtained on completing a one-year college course, usually requiring a few (typically 4) GCSEs at D or E grade.

NVQ 3.
Normally awarded for completing a two-year college or sixth form course commonly known as an advanced diploma. Achievements in modules or exams are usually labelled 'pass', 'merit', or distinction'. Distinctions or merits are often enough for university entry, although normally only to connected subjects and courses.

NVQ 4.
This attaches to a degree qualification, but usually one which combines work-based training with off-the-job study. It's important to note that the NVQs described here are available through the work-based route as well as via full-time study. NVQs go up to Level 8, but at Level 5 and above usually relate to postgraduate or management qualifications.

Scottish Qualifications.
Significant changes in 2013-16 gave schools in Scotland much more freedom than those in England, Wales or Northern Ireland to decide what they teach. Despite this, the large majority of Scottish students take National exams at age 15, Highers (if they wish) two years later: these are necessary for university entry. Advanced Highers provide the option of starting university in the second year of a degree.

International Baccalaureate.
The diploma awarded through this two-year programme for 16-19-year-olds is well-respected by universities world-wide. It consists of three core elements and six subjects which cover languages, sciences, maths and computing, the arts, and social sciences, thereby offering a broader base than A-levels. More information is available here

There other qualifications based on the same principle as the IB: for instance, a Welsh Baccalaureate can be studied at some schools and colleges in Wales.

European Baccalaureate
The European Baccalaureate cycle comprises the two last years of secondary education, and consists of a comprehensive multilingual curriculum. Pupils must always follow a combination of language, humanities and scientific subjects with subjects taught through more than one language. More information including the schools implementing the EB is available here.

Foreign Qualifications.
If your son/daughter holds qualifications gained abroad, and you're unsure of their value within the British education system, there is an organisation through which you can establish this. It is called UK NARIC, and details are to be found at www.naric.org.uk/

© Dr Paul Greer November, 2017.