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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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GCSEs AS-levels A-levels
International Baccalaureate Apprenticeships Btecs
T-levels HNC & HND Degrees

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.

graphic showing qualification levels in england

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.

Students can choose to take GCSEs in a range of subjects from across the curriculum, including English, maths and the sciences.

They are graded 9-1 under the 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: the level depends on the grade achieved. GCSE grades at 1, 2, 3 (or grades D, E, F, G in the old grading system) are Level 1 qualifications.

GCSE grades at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (or grades A*, A, B, C in the old grading system) are Level 2 qualifications. We've got an article that covers 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.

Some schools still run AS-levels, and they can be used as an indicator for future grades.

What are A-levels?

A-levels (Advanced levels) follow GCSEs. A-levels are a Level 3 qualification. Students taking A-level will usually study three or four subjects over two years. Exams at the end of this period are used to determine final grades.

Those grades are 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.
Universities may look at other factors such as predicted grades from your teachers, additional qualifications such as EPQs, and even your GCSE grades 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 the same level as GCSE, A-level and degree qualifications.

To read more about Btecs and what they offer read our quick guide to Btecs.

What are T-levels?

T-levels are a new qualification (launched in 2020) which students can choose to take after GCSEs. A T-level is a two-year course which focuses on developing workplace skills and knowledge. Students spend some of their time learning at school or college, along with time spent on a work placement. In terms of workload, one T-level is intended to be roughly equivalent to three A-levels.

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 or T-levels – 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. We have an article here which describes how much the different grades are worth.

What is the International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (commonly referred to as the IB) is an internationally recognised course for students aged 16 to 19 years old. The IB Diploma is a Level 3 qualification.

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. Students study six subjects: three at a higher level, and three at a standard level. 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. 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, read our guide to higher and degree apprenticeships.

What is an HNC?

HNC stands for Higher National Certificate. It has a vocational focus, preparing students with the skills they need for the workplace. As a Level 4 qualification, an HNC would typically be taken by students after sixth form. It's equivalent to one year of an undergraduate university degree. 

What is an HND?

HND stands for Higher National Diploma. It is a Level 5 qualification, so a step higher than an HNC. Again, this is a course that is vocational in its focus, where students are learning the skills needed for a particular workplace.

HNDs cover a range of subjects from accountancy to graphic design. It takes two years to study for an HND on a full-time course and up to four years as a part-time course. The course is equivalent to two years of university study.

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 educational Levels 4-6. 

What is a Master’s degree?

A Master’s degree can be undertaken by degree graduates and it covers a precise area of study. It is a Level 7 qualification and can take anything between one and four 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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