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Education levels and qualifications explained

A short guide to understanding different types of qualification, what they are and how they relate to one another.

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What are education levels?

Education qualifications are split into Levels 1-8 in England. You may find the following graphic useful in helping you understand different grades and how qualifications relate to one another.

Understanding qualification levels

What are GCSEs?

GCSEs (the General Certificate of Secondary Education) are exams that students traditionally take at the end of secondary school in Year 11.

They cover a range of subjects across the curriculum, including English, maths and the sciences.
They are graded 9-1 under a new GCSE grading system that was introduced in 2017. Grades were previously measured under the A*-G rating system.

GCSEs are both a Level 1 and a Level 2 qualification depending on the grade you achieve. Level 1 GCSE grades cover levels 1, 2, 3 or grades D, E, F, G. Level 2 GCSE qualifications are grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or grades A*, A, B, C.
See table below to help you understand:


 

Find out how important GCSEs are for your future studies.

What are AS-levels?

AS-levels are a Level 3 qualification, studied in Year 12. They were previously used to form part of your final grade for A-levels. However, they no longer count towards your final A-level mark.
 
Many schools in England still run AS-levels, and they can be used as an indicator for future grades.

If you’re studying AS-levels find out why your AS-levels still really count.
 

What are A-levels?

A-levels (Advanced levels) follow GCSEs and AS-levels. A-levels are a Level 3 qualification. They usually consist of studying three or four subjects over two years, with exams at the end of this period.

They are graded from A*-E and are often an entry requirement to a university. University courses may ask for specific, relevant subjects, sometimes with a minimum grade that needs to be achieved.

A-levels have undergone changes in recent years, which has had a knock-on effect on how they’re used as university requirements.
 
Universities may look at other factors such as predicted grades from your teachers, additional qualifications such as EPQs, and even your GCSE grades (see more about these below) when making a decision about offering you a place.

What are BTECs?

A BTEC focuses on practical learning skills as well as theory. They can be studied at GCSE, A-level and degree level. To read more about BTECs in depth and what they offer read our quick guide to BTECs.

What are Ucas points?

Ucas points are also known as the Ucas tariff. They refer to the points awarded for each grade you get after your post-16 studies. Each qualification grade – for example BTECs, A-levels and highers – has a number value, and they form part of your entry requirements for application to a university.

They are used by universities to compare different qualifications against one another. Use this handy infographic to see how much the different grades are worth.
 
Understand your A-level and higher points

What is the International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate or IB is an internationally recognised course for students aged 16 to 19 years old.

The IB is studied across the world and is well respected by universities in the UK and overseas. In fact, it might open up opportunities for you to study abroad.

It covers a broader range of subjects than A-levels and focuses on independent thinking and creativity. The qualification that students receive after completing it is called an IB Diploma, which is a Level 3 qualification.

There are three components to the course, and students are assessed on each part:
  • theory of knowledge (TOK)
  • creativity, action and service
  • extended essay
Students study six subjects: three at a higher level, and three at a standard level. The subjects cover the following areas:
  • studies in language and literature
  • language acquisition
  • individuals and societies
  • sciences
  • mathematics
  • the arts
Find out about applying to university with an International Baccalaureate.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a learning programme that combines work and study. Apprentices benefit from ‘on the job’ learning as well as some study.

They will receive at least the minimum apprenticeship wage during their training. There are several levels of apprenticeship, ranging from intermediate to a degree that corresponds to different educational levels. See examples below:
 
Apprenticeship levels
Type of apprenticeship  Level  Equivalent education level
Intermediate 2 5 GCSE passes at grades A* to C
Advanced 3 A-level pass
Higher 4,5,6,7 Foundation degree and above
Degree 6,7 Bachelor's or master's degree
 
To learn more about Higher and Degree apprenticeships read our guide.

What is a HNC?

HNC stands for a Higher National Certificate. It has a vocational focus and is a Level 4.

What is a HND?

HND stands for a Higher National Diploma. It is a Level 5 and higher than a HNC. It’s a course that has more of a vocational aspect to its training.
HNDs cover a range of subjects from accountancy to graphic design. It can take years to study as part of a full-time course and up to four years as part of a part-time course.

What is a degree?

There are three main types of degree for students following the university higher education path.

What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is completed at university, usually after sixth form. It spans from educational Levels 4-6. To learn more about the university application process read The Getting Into Uni Guide.

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is undertaken by degree graduates if they so wish, and it covers a precise area of study. It is an education Level 7 and can take anything between 1 and 4 years of study. A large amount of independent study is required.

What is a PhD degree or doctorate?

A doctorate is the highest level of degree that can be obtained and is Level 8 on the educational scale. On average a doctorate can take eight years to complete, with research into a given subject taking years.


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