Overview of the Different Qualification Levels in the UK

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In the UK, the education system can be broken down and split up in a range of different ways. From the different year groups or key stages in schools, to the different classifications of education stages, such as further education or higher education.

However, specific qualifications can also be split up and classified, even within these groups that have just been mentioned. These are called qualification levels, in this article, we’ll be looking at exactly what these are.

The following table will give you a very brief overview of the UK qualification levels.

Qualification level Example qualifications Scottish qualification level
Entry level (sub level 1) ·         National 1 qualifications 1
Entry level (sub level 2) ·         National 2 qualifications 2
Entry level (sub level 3) ·         National 3 qualifications 3
1 ·         GCSE grade D-G (3-1)

·         National 4 qualifications

·         Level 1 BTECs

4
2 ·         GCSE grades A*-C (9-4)

·         Intermediate apprenticeship

·         National 5 qualifications

5
3 ·         A-Levels

·         Highers

·         Advanced Highers (level 7)

·         T-Levels

·         BTEC Nationals

6/ 7
4 ·         HNC

·         CertHE

·         Higher apprenticeship

7
5 ·         Foundation degree

·         HND

·         DipHE

8
6 ·         Bachelor’s degree

·         Ordinary degree

·         Degree Apprenticeship

9/ 10
7 ·         Master’s degree

·         PGCE

11
8 ·         PhD

·         Professional doctorate

12

Continue reading for more on the different qualification levels in the UK. This article will give you examples of qualifications at each level and give you a bit of an explanation about what is expected of students at each stage.

What are the qualification levels in the UK?

In the UK, qualification levels are how specific qualifications are broken down. These separate qualifications into ranks that indicate the difficulty of the qualification.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, these levels are from entry level to level 8. Scotland, however, uses a different system, known as the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). With this system, the levels are from level 1 to level 12.

For more information about the qualification levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, check out this governmental guide. For more information about the SCQF levels, check out this guide by the SQA.

You can also learn more about how many qualification levels there are in the UK in this Think Student article, which goes into much greater depth.

What is an entry level qualification in the UK?

In the UK, an entry level qualification is the first level of qualification that you can get. It is split into 3 sub levels: entry level 1, entry level 2 and entry level 3. Entry level 3 is the highest of the entry level qualifications.

In the Scottish SCQF levels, entry level in England, Wales and Northern Ireland covers levels 1 to 3 as it lines up with the entry level sub levels. Meaning that level 1 in Scotland is equivalent to entry level 1 and so on.

The idea of entry level qualifications is so that you can have a qualification that is recognised in the UK even if you’re not ready or prepared to study a higher-level qualification. It aims to give you basic knowledge and skills that can be applied to everyday situations, although it won’t be for a specific career area.

Some of the qualifications at entry level or levels 1- 3 in Scotland are as follows.

  • National 1 qualifications
  • National 2 qualifications
  • National 3 qualifications
  • Entry level awards
  • Entry level diplomas
  • Skills for Life qualifications
  • Entry level ESOL qualifications

What is a level 1 qualification in the UK?

A level 1 qualification is the next level up in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The equivalent of this in the SCQF levels is a level 4 qualification.

As it is at a slightly higher level, level 1 qualifications are naturally going to require a little bit more of students. While they still teach basic knowledge and skills, students should be able to apply their learning a bit more and the qualification may even be linked to a specific career area.

Some of the qualifications at level 1 or at level 4 for Scotland are as follows.

  • National 4 qualifications
  • GCSE grades 3- 1/ D and G (below a pass)
  • Music grades 1 to 3
  • Level 1 essential skills qualifications
  • Level 1 functional skills qualifications
  • Level 1 national vocational qualifications (NVQs)/ level 4 Scottish vocational qualifications (SVQs)
  • Level 1 BTEC qualifications, which you can learn more about in this Think Student article.

What is a level 2 qualification in the UK?

The next level up is a level 2 qualification. This is equivalent to a level 5 qualification in Scotland. Once again, these qualifications are a bit more substantial and challenging.

With qualifications at this level, students will be taught to have a good knowledge and understanding of the subject. The aim is that students will complete the qualification and be able to apply this to a variety of tasks, although some may need to be with supervision.

Level 2/ level 5 qualifications are suitable for a number of different roles and have a bit more prestige than entry level and level 1 qualifications. Due to this, there is a far greater range of qualifications at this level, these include the following.

  • GCSEs grades 9- 4/ A*- C (passing grades)
  • National 5 qualifications- you can learn more about these in this Think Student article.
  • Intermediate apprenticeships
  • Level 2 BTEC and CTEC qualifications- you can learn more about CTEC qualifications, by looking at this Think Student article.
  • Level 2 NVQs/ level 5 SVQs
  • Level 2 functional skills qualifications
  • Level 2 essential skills qualifications
  • Music grades 4 and 5
  • Cambridge Nationals (at level 2)

What is a level 3 qualification in the UK?

The level 3 qualification is the next one up. It’s roughly equivalent to level 6 qualifications in Scotland. However, some level 7 qualifications would also come under this bracket.

Being at a higher level, level 3 qualifications can help to open more opportunities, particularly with your career but also if you want to further your education. In fact, as forms of further education, part of the point of level 3 and equivalent qualifications is to bridge the gap between GCSEs or National 5 qualifications and university or starting a career.

You can learn more about further education by checking out this Think Student article.

Level 3 qualifications are meant to give students a detailed understanding in their subject and can be used as qualifiers for higher education or work.

Some of the qualifications under the bracket of level 3 and equivalent are as follows.

  • A-Levels
  • AS-Levels
  • Highers- you can see more about these by looking at this Think Student article.
  • Advanced Highers (level 7 in Scotland)
  • Extended project qualifications (EPQs)
  • Advanced apprenticeships
  • Foundation apprenticeships
  • BTEC Nationals and other level 3 BTECs
  • International Baccalaureate diploma (IB diploma)- not heard of the IB diploma? Have a look at this Think Student article which will give you more details.
  • T-Levels
  • Level 3 CTECs
  • Level 3 NVQs and level 6 SVQs
  • Music grades 6, 7 and 8
  • Advanced diploma qualifications
  • Cambridge Pre-U diplomas

You can learn more about some of the qualifications equivalent to A-Levels by checking out this Think Student article. You can also learn more about what level 3 qualifications are in this Think Student article.

What is a level 4 qualification in the UK?

Level 4 is the next level up and equivalent to the first year at university. For Scotland, the equivalent is level 7. However, as previously mentioned this is a rough equivalent as some level 7 qualifications, such as Advanced Highers are actually equivalent to level 3 qualifications instead.

Level 4 or level 7 qualifications mark the start of higher education. Higher education includes a wide range of university-level qualifications, although some may be studied at a higher education (HE) college or by other means. For more information about higher education, have a look at this Think Student article.

At level 4, students are meant to be given specialist and in-depth knowledge and understanding in their area. This aims to provide students with the right skills to allow them to carry out technical or professional jobs independently.

Some of the qualifications under this level are as follows.

  • Higher national certificates (HNCs)- you can learn more about these qualifications by checking out this Think Student article.
  • Certificates of higher education (CertHEs)- you can learn more about CertHEs in this Think Student article.
  • Higher apprenticeships
  • Level 4 BTECs
  • Level 4 NVQs/ level 7 SVQs

You can learn more about level 4 qualifications by checking out this Think Student article.

What is a level 5 qualification in the UK?

A level 5 qualification is also a part of higher education, and it is equivalent to the second year of university. For Scotland, this is roughly the same as a level 8 qualification.

At this level, students are taught at a level where they can respond to complex problems and situations. Due to this, level 5 or level 8 qualifications can act as qualifiers for higher grade professions, such as technicians, managers and other professionals.

Some of the qualifications that are at level 5 or level 8 are as follows.

  • Foundation degrees- students often confuse these with foundation years, this Think Student article will tell you all you need to know about foundation degrees, so you know the difference.
  • Higher national diplomas (HNDs)- have a look at this Think Student article for more on HNDs.
  • Diplomas of higher education (DipHEs)
  • Higher apprenticeships
  • Level 5 BTECs
  • Level 5 NVQs/ level 8 SVQs

What is a level 6 qualification in the UK?

A level 6 qualification is also a part of higher education. In comparison to the Scottish SCQF levels, it is slightly different to the other levels. This is because it is equivalent to both level 9 qualifications and level 10 qualifications.

At level 6/ level 9 or 10, students are taught at a specialist level in their area, allowing them to use their own ideas or research to respond to complex problems and ideas. Due to this, this level of qualification is made for people to be able to work in knowledge-based professions or in high management positions.

Some of the qualifications at this level are as follows.

  • Bachelor’s degree (level 10 in Scotland with honours, with or without honours for rest of UK)- for more on these have a look at this Think Student article.
  • Ordinary degree without honours (level 9 in Scotland)
  • Degree apprenticeship- you can learn more about this type of apprenticeship in this Think Student article.
  • Graduate apprenticeship
  • Graduate certificate
  • Graduate diploma
  • Level 6 NVQs/ level 9 or 10 SVQs

What is a level 7 qualification in the UK?

A level 7 qualification is at the 2nd highest level of qualification that students can take in the UK. In Scotland, this would be a level 11 qualification.

As these qualifications are at such a high level, what is required of students is also much more advanced. Students are meant to achieve a highly developed and complex level of understanding and knowledge within their field by the end of their qualification. Due to this, this level of qualification is appropriate for senior professionals and managers.

The following list will provide you with some examples of qualifications that you can get at this level.

  • Master’s degrees- for more information about these qualifications, check out this Think Student article.
  • Integrated master’s degrees
  • Postgraduate certificates (PGCert)
  • Postgraduate certificates in education (PGCE)
  • Postgraduate diplomas (PGDip)
  • Degree apprenticeships
  • Graduate apprenticeships
  • Level 7 NVQs/ level 11 SVQs

What is a level 8 qualification in the UK?

Next up, is the level 8 qualification level. This is the last on the list as naturally it is the highest qualification level in the UK. The equivalent of this in Scotland is level 12.

Once again, as the highest qualification level in the UK, the qualifications at this level are much more advanced and challenging. Students are meant to be able to develop new approaches or have professional practice in their field by the time they complete their qualification. Due to this, this kind of qualification is for leading experts and professionals in a field.

Some of the qualifications at this level are as follows.

  • Professional doctorate degrees
  • Academic doctorate degrees, such as PhDs, which you can find more about in this Think Student article.
  • Specialist certificates, awards and diplomas

*The information above is partially taken from this Think Student article, this guide from NI Direct and this page from the government website.

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