Qualifications explained

With so many different types of qualifications available to you if can be difficult to find the right one for you.  Here is our guide to the help you make the right choice:

To see what level you have reached and also to compare levels, please see Qualifications Levels explained

Qualifications explained


What is it?

Who is it for?

How long does it take?

Where will I study?

GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

A qualification in a specific subject, such as Maths, Science, History or IT.

Usually age 14-16

2 years

Year 10 and 11 at school

BTEC First

A vocational qualification. It is equivalent of 4 GCSE grades A* - C.

Age 14 -19 but also  adults.


School or college

AS (Advanced Subsidiary) Level

The first part of an A level, worth 40% towards that A Level (A2). UCAS points are awarded for AS.

Usually age 16-17

1 year

Year 12 (Sixth Form) or at college.

A2 Level

The second part of an A Level course, taken after AS Level. UCAS points are awarded for A2.

Usually age 17-18

1 year

Year 12 or 13 (Sixth Form) or at a Further Education college.

BTEC Nationals

Equivalent to A levels, these specialist qualifications are for those with at least four A*-C grade GCSEs or a BTEC First. UCAS points are awarded for BTEC Nationals

Age 16 upwards. For those with a clear view of their future career or seeking progression to Higher Education.

2 years

Further Education colleges

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) is an assessed programme respected by leading universities across the globe

Age 16 to 19.


School and college

Foundation Diploma course (Art and Design)

The equivalent of 3 A levels, this course is designed to give a broad knowledge in a range of art and design disciplines to progress into employment or University degree in a related subject.


1 year

Higher Education college & university


Combining practical training in a paid job with study, there are 3 different levels – Intermediate (equivalent to 5 GCSE passes), Advanced (equivalent to 2 A level passes) and Higher (degree/NVQ 4).

Those still at school, if you are 16 or over, living in England and not in full-time education.


Workplace and college

Access to HE Diploma

For those without traditional qualifications, this diploma prepares you for study at university.

18+ and no upper age limit.

1 year or more, full or part-time.

Higher Education College

Extended Degree

An alternative route into higher education for those that do not have traditional qualifications. Bridging previous education or work experience, it ensures students have the knowledge and academic experience to complete a full degree.


1 year of full-time study

Universities and Further Education colleges working in partnership

Foundation Degrees

Work-based qualifications linked to a range of employment sectors. These are qualifications in their own right, but they also allow you to progress to a full degree course.


2 years full-time, longer part-time

Universities and Further Education colleges working in partnership

HNC (Higher National Certificate)

These focus on 'learning by doing' and give you the skills to put your knowledge to effective use in a particular job, Most require one A level (or equivalent) and are one level below an HND. They can be topped up to an HND or HNCs can allow entry into the second year of a degree.


1 year full-time and 2 years part-time.

Further and Higher Education colleges

HND (Higher National Diploma)

Similar to an HNC, this is a work-related course.  Generally an HND is the equivalent to two years at university course and so may allow entry into the final year of a 3-year universities degree.


2 years full-time and 3 -4 years part-time

Further and Higher Education colleges

Undergraduate degree

An academic degree is awarded to a student who has completed undergraduate courses. Entry requirements are usually a mix of qualifications, subject or exam grades, usually A levels or similar.

18+ and no upper age limit

At least 3 or 4 years to complete.

Higher Education college and universities

Postgraduate study

Includes qualifications such as Masters and PhD programmes where a good undergraduate degree is usually required.