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Vocational qualifications explained

You know you want to do some training, and you've got an idea of the subject you want to learn about, but where to start?

Jade O'Donoghue
12th February 2016
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If you're going down the academic route, things are fairly simple – GCSEs, A Levels, degrees, postgraduate qualifications…there's a well trodden path and one that starts the same for everyone, in the final years of school, completing GCSEs. If you know the career you want to go into though, and it doesn't require being an expert in the likes of psychology or literature, you're probably looking at vocational qualifications. And, unfortunately, it must be said, this is where the waters get muddied a bit.

Every word you look at seems to be an acronym and it's really confusing trying to work out how the levels compare – what's the difference between a higher apprenticeship and an intermediate one!? And actually, what even IS a vocational qualification? How are they different from academic ones? Suddenly your pulse is racing and the whole idea of taking a course seems far too scary to contemplate. Fear not! It's quite normal for your brain to be frazzled by all the NVQs, GCSEs and BTECs flying around as you choose a course and it's ok to need a bit of help if you're struggling to make sense of it. That's where we step in…


Good for your career

The first thing you need to know about vocational qualifications is that they are work related and combine skills that employers look for with knowledge of a certain subject. This means they are particularly good if you are looking to move your career along in a certain field. They'll be quite practical and hands on and will involve less classroom time than their academic counterparts.

They’re also useful if you are after a complete career change. Gill McGregor teaches vocational floristry qualifications at Capel Manor College and stresses the importance of these types of course, 'The best way to get a job in floristry is by achieving a vocational qualification. Many students are then offered jobs by their work placements.'

This is one of the really great things about vocational qualifications – they ensure you are almost completely trained to do your job as soon as you start employment.  This is attractive to employers because they don’t have to pay you while you train – you are already good to go.

Academic qualifications, on the other hand, will involve mostly time in the classroom and will teach you to be an 'expert' on a subject and the theory side of things as opposed to actually teaching you practical skills to use in a given work place. That's not to say they're not useful for the working world – more that they are useful in certain jobs that require a solid academic knowledge.


How do they compare?

There are different levels to vocational qualifications and understanding these will help you get to know where your skills lie in relation to those holding more academic qualifications. One way that you might see VQs explained is by which level they are classified at. These compare to other types of qualification and run from entry level to level eight. As a rough guide -  

  • Entry level – qualifications to prepare you for further education
  • Level one – equivalent to GCSE grades D-G
  • Level two – equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C
  • Level three – equivalent to A levels
  • Level four – equivalent to undergraduate qualifications
  • Level five – also equivalent to undergraduate qualifications
  • Level six – equivalent to graduate qualifications
  • Level seven – equivalent to postgraduate qualifications
  • Level eight – equivalent to studying for a PhD


Antony Ellison studied the Creative Music Producer vocational course at Kensington and Chelsea College at Levels 2 and 3. Antony explains, 'On the Level 2 course I studied last year we covered a range of topics and activities. Level 3 is more intense and goes into more depth, and I’ve gained an invaluable working knowledge of the subject.'

The higher up the levels you go, the more you learn and the more detail you will go into. The higher up qualifications will give you a good footing in the workplace too as you'll be able to go in at a less junior level. You can read more about how qualifications are classified here.


Flexible and varied

Vocational qualifications come in all shapes and sizes. Examples include NVQs and BTECs, which require more classroom time as well as apprenticeships, where your training is workplace-based. Not only that, but the subjects you can study range all the way from construction and property, to hair and beauty, and even business and management.

You might see VQs explained as being full time, part time, as short courses. One of the great things about them is that most have timetables to suit busy lives, so you can fit your studies around work or childcare. For this reason vocational qualifications are a favourite for adult learners.


Acronyms explained

There are a lot of confusing terms out there so to help, here are a few you might come across and what they mean…

QCF - This is the Qualifications and Credits Framework and it's the guide to what level different qualifications in the UK are judged to be at.

NVQ - This stands for National Vocational Qualification and is a work-based qualification that will train you in skills relevant to particular industries.

BTEC - This stands for Business and Technology Education Council which is an awarding organisation and the name given to a type of vocational qualification that is also accepted by many universities.

FE - This means Further Education which is generally the bracket vocational qualifications fall under, though some go up to the same levels as Higher Education.

VQ - This is sometimes used in place of Vocational Qualification, as a shortened name for it.


What next?

We hope that’s gone a way to making things clearer for you but if you want to know more about the specific qualifications and how they relate to your particular career plan, our best advice is to chat to the course provider you're interested in studying with. They are the experts and should be able to point you in the right direction. Start by searching for the subject you think you'd like to study and the only way is up from there!

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