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Qualifications and Educational Background

Before students enter higher education they may have undertaken a variety of qualifications, both academic and vocational, this page brings together information about some of these qualifications, many of which are awarded points under the UCAS tariff system. Students may develop different skills, have very different experiences and learn about very different areas of the biosciences

So what are the qualifications that UK students may have taken? How are they taught? What knowledge and skills might students have gained from them?

Links and further resources


HNC and HND (Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma)

HNCs and HNDs are vocational HE qualifications combining academic theory and practical experience. HNCs and HNDs are designed to focus on the skills that put knowledge to effective use in a particular job.

  • HNCs can be completed in one year full time and two years part time (or in other situations such as distance learning).
  • HNDs take two years full time and can also be taken part time and with a sandwich year

HNCs and HNDs are provided by over 400 HE and FE colleges and, in addition to being a qualification in its own right, an HND can also qualify students for entry onto the second or third year of a related degree course.
HNDs are available in a wide variety of areas including Biological Science, Countryside Management and Environmental Land Management.

How are they assessed?
HNCs and HNDs are mainly assessed through assignments, projects and practical tasks that are completed throughout the course.

Grades within each subject unit are: Pass; Merit or Distinction.


Vocational qualifications - BTECs and OCR Nationals

BTEC qualifications and OCR Nationals are work-related qualifications, many of which have been designed in collaboration with industry, offer a mix of theory and practice, and can include an element of work experience.

BTECs can be taken at 3 levels:

  • National Award equivalent to 1 A level,
  • National Certificate equivalent to 2 A levels and
  • National Diploma equivalent to 3 A levels.

Over 220 subject areas can be studied, including: Land and Environment - Agriculture to Land-based Technology, Sport including Exercise Sciences and Science including Applied Science. BTECs can be studied alongside A levels.

How are they assessed?
Assessment does not involve exams and is generally by the teacher or trainer in the place of study. Depending on the qualification chosen, some assessment may also be done by external examiners. Assessment is ongoing and combines theory and practical exercises.
A range of assignments can be taken during a BTEC or OCR National; case studies and practical activities, as well as a portfolio of evidence that shows the work completed. Each assignment goes towards a unit result, the unit result then contributes to the overall result.

BTEC and OCR Nationals are graded: pass; merit; distinction

More about Vocational qualifications:

Vocational Blight is a myth, article from Times online


International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB Diploma Programme is an internationally recognised qualification for students aged 16 to 19. It is based around detailed academic study of a wide range of subjects and leads to a single diploma, rather than separate qualifications for individual subjects. The IB normally takes 2 years to complete and is made up of a compulsory 'core', plus six separate subjects where students have some choice over what is studied.

The compulsory core contains three elements:

  1. theory of knowledge: the basis of knowledge, how to analyse evidence and express yourself in rational argument; students are encouraged to draw on experiences gained outside the classroom
  2. creativity, action and service: this part of the programme encourages involvement in theatre or music activities, sports and/or community service
  3. extended essay: investigate of a particular topic of interest and write a 4,000 word essay about it

Optional subjects: As well as the three core elements, students also select one subject from each of the following six areas:

  1. first language (normally mother tongue)
  2. second language
  3. experimental sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, design technology)
  4. mathematics and computer science
  5. the arts (visual, music and theatre)
  6. individuals and society (history, psychology, geography)

Normally, three of the six optional subjects will be studied at a higher level (240 teaching hours per subject), and the other three at a standard level (150 teaching hours).

How are they assessed?
Most of the assessment is done through exams, marked externally. However, in nearly all subjects, some of the assessment is carried out by student’s teachers, who mark individual pieces of coursework.

A student’s examination performance in individual subjects is scored on a scale of 1–7 points (7 = excellent, 1= very poor, N = no grade) with a further 3 points available based on performance in the theory of knowledge and the extended essay. Students who display satisfactory levels of performance across all subject areas and achieve a minimum of 24 points (out of a possible 45) are awarded the IB diploma. All others receive a certificate of results for the subjects examined.

Further information about the IB


AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A (Advanced) levels:

AS and A level qualifications are study based and normally take two years to complete full-time. A wide range of academic subjects, as well as some 'applied' (work-related) subjects can be studied. A levels are made up of the AS level and the A2 (which are each made up of three modules or units), each part makes up 50% of the overall A level grade.

  • AS level: The AS level can be either a qualification in its own right, or the first half of the full A level. At the end of the AS year students can take the AS level qualification only, or continue to the second year and go for the full A level
  • Year two: the A2: In year two of a full A level the A2 is taken - this is not a separate qualification, but rather the second half of the A level. The A2 is designed to deepen the knowledge gained during AS level.

How are they assessed?
Assessment is normally on a mixture of 70% written exams and 30% coursework (although some exam boards are reducing the amount of coursework); there is also assessment of practical skills in some subjects including science. All A levels must include some 'synoptic assessment' as part of the A2, this means testing understanding of the whole subject, and will normally contribute 20% to the full A level.

Both AS and A levels are graded A - E, or U for unclassified, A* grades (for A-levels only) will be introduced in 2010.

More about A-levels

Stretch the bightes urges exam watchdog, article from Telegraph online


The Extended Project

The extended project is intended to be a separate qualification that A level students can choose to take. Students will be able to carry out a project on a topic of their own choosing which may or may not be linked to their chosen A level subjects. The projects will involve planning, research and evaluation, but the end product students produce may be a dissertation, the findings of an investigation or field study, a performance or an artifact. Students will be encouraged to take the extended project in order to develop research and independent learning skills of benefit to them in either employment or HE.
A common framework will exist between the stand-alone extended project for A-Levels and its equivalent for Level 3 Diplomas


Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs)

AEAs are aimed at the top 10% of A-level students nationally in each subject and require students to use knowledge gained during A level studies, and apply it more widely and critically than in the A level exam. AEAs are normally taken by students studying A levels, however, it is possible take the AEA without taking the A level itself.
AEAs are available in 19 subjects including biology, chemistry, maths and physics.

How are they assessed?
Students take a written exam assessed by external examiners and are expected to demonstrate;
use of critical analysis; evaluation skills and; the ability to pull together different topics

There are two pass grades for an AEA: Distinction and Merit. If a student does not reach the standard for merit they are graded unclassified.



Following the Tomlinson report , the first diplomas will be launched in 2008, intended to run alongside GCSEs and A-levels for 14-19 year olds and will offer a mix of academic and vocational skills. Diplomas aim to:

  • Develop specific workplace skills
  • Improve key generic skills such as numeracy, literacy, communication and ICT
  • Prepare students for the world of work through relevant placements and team projects
  • Open up choices for students by offering different ways of learning and a route into HE or employment

The first diplomas on offer from September 2008 are: Construction and the Built Environment; Creative and Media; Health and Social care; Engineering and; Information Technology. Following in 2009: land-based & environmental, manufacturing, hair & beauty, business administration & finance and hospitality & catering, and in 2010 come public services, sport & leisure, retail and travel & tourism. Further diplomas will be launched in 2011, including Science.

Diplomas will be available at different levels:

  • Level 1 - Foundation: broadly similar to having lower-grade GCSEs
  • Level 2 - Higher: broadly equivalent to five GCSEs at grade C or above
  • Level 3 - Advanced: equivalent to three A-levels, and a whole A-level or specialised training component could be studied within it

Diplomas will be developed and delivered by partnerships which typically involve schools, colleges and perhaps employers working in collaboration.

More information about Diplomas is available from DfES and the Diplomas website from Direct.gov.uk.

House of commons report on 14-19 diplomas


Foundation Degrees:

Foundation Degrees integrate academic and work-based learning, are designed in partnership with employers and are generally delivered by colleges and universities. A full-time course will usually take two years to complete, and students can choose to combine employment and study. Foundation degrees require equivalent standards of academic attainment as the second year of an honours degree and are currently available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are a qualification in their own right, however, after completing a foundation degree, students can go on to study for an honours degree (which would take an additional year).

How are they assessed?
Different foundation degree courses will be assessed in different ways. Most courses involve a mixture of exams and coursework, plus assessment of the learning done in the workplace, some also ask for a written dissertation produced at the end of the course.

Generally, there are no grades for foundation degrees; in most cases students are awarded either a 'pass' or 'fail'. However, a few courses may also offer a 'distinction'.


Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers

Scottish Highers are taken in S5 and S6 (Yr 12 and 13) and Advanced Highers (if taken) in S6, it takes one year to study for a Higher, therefore it is common to take between four and six Highers in any one academic year.
Every Higher course consists of:

  • A compulsory core which all candidates must complete
  • Optional elements which a candidate and/or centre choose to study

How are they assessed?
Highers are assessed through:

  • Three progress exams, commonly referred to as a NAB (National Assessment Bank - from which these exams are selected by teachers). These are assessed by a centre and moderated by the SQA
  • Coursework, though not all subjects include this
  • A terminal exam which candidates sit once they have achieved sufficiently well in the progress exams - it is the final examination (and, where applicable, any coursework) which determines the grade and level of pass.

Students must pass all the progress exams as well as the final examination to pass the course and be awarded a Higher.

Higher examinations, have 5 grades: A, B, C, D and No Award (fail). A, B and C all indicate that the candidate has achieved the Higher, with D representing a "first fail" where a candidate just failed to achieve sufficiently to move from Intermediate 2, the level below Highers.


NVQ – National Vocational Qualification

NVQs are 'competence-based' qualifications: students learn practical, work-related tasks designed to help them develop the skills and knowledge to do a job effectively. NVQs are based on national standards for various occupations, these standards say what a competent person in a job could be expected to do and, as students progress through the course, they compare their skills and knowledge with these standards as they learn. NVQ can be taken by students if: they are employed or; they are studying at college and have a part-time job or access to a work placement.
There are 11 NVQ occupational areas including: developing and extending knowledge and skill; extracting and providing natural resources; providing health, social and protective services and tending animals, plants and land.

Within reason, there is no maximum time limit to complete an NVQ; many learners take about one year to complete an NVQ at level 1 and 2, and around two years for an NVQ at level 3. Having studied an NVQ at level 3, students can go on to an HE course in a related vocational area, such as an HNC, HND or foundation degree.

How are they assessed?
NVQs are assessed on practical assignments and a portfolio of evidence. Normally, a qualified assessor will observe students and question them about the work they carry out in the workplace, assessors will test knowledge and understanding as well as actual performance. Assessors will 'sign-off' individual units within the NVQ when a student has reached the required standard.

Students are assessed as being either 'competent' or 'not yet competent'.


Where can I find out more?

Direct Gov – qualifications explained

HERO have a section on qualifications, covering 14-19 education, undergraduate and postgraduate.

From Aimigher - Understanding the National Qualifications Framework. Simon Roodhouse and Yvonne Dickinson have developed a diagram to help practitioners understanding the National Qualifications Framework, diagram and supporting document

Links to examination board websites from EducationGuardian