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The education system in England - please click on any of the options for more information.

Education System in England

Please, click on any of the boxes in this grid for more information.

Education System in England
College courses GCSE A levels Apprenticeship Degree Foundation Degree HNC & HND Higher/Degree Apprenticeship Vocational Qualifications MAc/MA - PG Dip. - PG Cert. PhD T Levels

College courses

Often, or mainly, taught at further education colleges. They are often less academic and more practical than A levels with tests based on coursework, rather than written exams in many cases. Subjects include vocational options such as hairdressing, catering, construction, mechanics, etc... There are also options which are less linked to one career area and which may prompt students to go on to higher education. Examples of these are applied science and art.

generally speaking, you need the following grades for each of the levels. You don't have to start at level 1 for most subjects but it's important to check on the college website.

  • Level 3: you can often start here, depending on subject and GCSE grades. You would normally need grade 4 and above to get in. After level 3 you can either look for a qualified job or you can enter higher education.
  • Level 2: generally you need GCSE grade 3 to get in. This is also the level most people doing vocational courses start at. After finishing level 2 you can go onto an advanced apprenticeship or onto level 3, depending on grades.
  • Level 1 and foundation learning: these courses are for people who haven't achieved grade 3 and for some vocational students, such as those opting for bricklaying, for whom it's important to get a good grounding in the skills needed for the job. This level will allow you to move onto the next level.



GCSEs are usually taken between the ages of 14 and 16 and are the standard qualification of secondary education in England and Wales. Entry level qualifications are for those who are struggling to work to GCSE level.

  • GCSEs above grade 4 are equivalent to level 2 and will normally allow the student to move on to a level 3 course (with some exceptions. Some college courses will expect any student with those grades to start at level 2 or level 1 to get the skills they need in a particular practical subject to move up to level 3).
  • GCSEs below level 4 are equivalent to level 1 and would allow the student to move on to level 2, except for courses where they have to start at level 1.
  • contrary to what people believe, there is no pass or fail for GCSEs. There are just different levels.

A levels

A level qualifications were divided up in AS and A2 until recently but are now full two year qualifications which you can only enter after successfully getting the necessary GCSE grades, usually grade 5 or 6 or above in certain subjects. They are academic courses with an exam at the end, although, some schools will organise mock exams at the end of year 12 so students can gauge on where they are with their studies.

A levels will allow you to go on to higher education, including higher apprenticeships. Some students will decide to go to work after finishing, but if that's your plan you need to be aware that A levels don't qualify you for any particular career or job. Others go on to do an intermediate or advanced apprenticeship instead.


Normally completed in the workplace through a paid job with on the job training. They usually consist of an apprentice working for 4 days and then spending one day at college or with another learning provider, set up and organised by the employer. To prepare for starting an apprenticeship you would usually write a strong CV to promote what you have to offer to an employer. If successful you will then be invited for an interview after which they may offer you the job if successful. It's important to have a strong backup, which could be the equivalent college course.

To start an apprenticeship it's important that you find a placement with an employer. This could be through:

  • responding to a vacancy on the apprenticeship website
  • contacting employers and asking them if they can offer you a placement. You can phone, visit (both of which can turn into an interview!, write an email or letter with your CV. You can find local employers by searching on
  • through friends and family. It's important to tell everyone you are looking for a placement, and what you are looking for.
  • in local papers and on job vacancy websites.
  • on websites of professional organisations or company websites.

More information and available placements can be found on the government's apprenticeship website.


  • Typically 3 years full time, but in Scotland generally 4 years full time. For most, this is still the standard higher education qualification, even though there is a trend in some industries towards a Masters as a typical qualification for entry.
  • Usually the standard qualification for entry onto the PGC, PGD or Masters.
  • Degrees are available at different levels:
    • Ordinary degree: you have a pass for your degree and/or have studied not in enough depth to be awarded an Honours degree.
    • Honours degree: in Scotland usually taking 4 years to complete, are the ‘standard’ degree and are themselves divided up as follows, dependent on the grades you got:
      • First Class
      • 2.1 or upper second class
      • 2.2 or lower second class
      • Third class
  • It often depends on the university where the cut off points are for each of these. Some universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, may have a different system of awarding creditation.

For more information, visit

BA or BSc?

In the UK, there is a very general distinction between arts qualifications and science qualifications.

  • Arts degrees (MA, BA, Fda…) are generally linked to ‘arts’ subjects, such as history, law, art, geography etc… and are very generally less based in the strict sciences (physics, biology, chemistry and maths).
  • Science degrees (MSc, BSc, Fdsc…) are generally directly linked into the four sciences. Examples could be physics, astronomy, oceanography etc…

Please be aware that some subjects like psychology, sociology etc… offer both. Sometimes a student has the choice of either, depending on the specialism within a degree he or she chooses.

The explanation of arts degrees and science degrees is a very general explanation. Reality is generally less simplistic than is pictured here.

  • Another abbreviation you may come across is ‘SW’. SW degree or Sandwich course/degree is a degree where the student is expected to do one year of work within the industry linked to the subject studied. This ‘year out’ is sandwiched in between years at university.

You will also find a range of other Bachelors degrees and abbreviations linked to particular subjects. Examples are BFin for finance, BMid for midwifery etc…

Foundation Degree

  • Equivalent to the second year of a degree once qualified.
  • Typically two years full time.
  • A vocational course with a more practical aspect linked in with industry.
  • Possible, and often expected, to be followed by a one year top up course to make this qualification a full degree. The qualification stands by itself however, and is well respected by British industry. A number of people take this qualification part time while working for a company, which often sponsors the student.

For more information visit



  • Higher National Certificate.
  • Equivalent to the first year of a degree.
  • Typically one year full time.
  • A Btec course which is often a more vocational qualification after which you can do a second year to achieve an HND.


  • Higher National Diploma.
  • Generally equivalent to the first and/or second year of a degree.
  • Typically two years full time.
  • A Btec course which is often a more vocational qualification.

For more information, visit

Higher/Degree Apprenticeship

These are work based options through which you can achieve higher education qualifications. Usually they are offered by larger companies as they will pay for you to go to university part time, meaning you will not have any student debt.

  • To start a higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship you need an employer who is running the scheme.
  • Apply through the apprenticeship website: or or or through company websites/to companies direct.
  • As mentioned, the employer pays for your higher education and you would get your qualification debt free and in work, earning money. The employer will often expect a longer term commitment from you as they need to see a return on their investment in you.
  • Competition for a place is often fierce. Ideally apply or plan for a strong backup (university?) at the same time.
  • You need to make sure you really want to do the job or work in the sector before committing. A full time university course leaves options open more.
  • These apprenticeships are mainly available in more practical areas. For some careers, like medicine, this is not an option.

Vocational Qualifications

Often NVQ but they can be a variety of different qualifications, depending on your job and sector. They are mainly taken in the workplace and are based on work based assessments as a result, rather than exams. Check the website of your professional body or check with your employer if you are intersted. They may even pay for the course!

MAc/MA - PG Dip. - PG Cert.

PG Certificate

  • Postgraduate Certificate.
  • Broadly equivalent to a third of a Masters.
  • The standard qualification for entry into teaching and some other careers.
  • Sometimes entry without a degree is possible if the applicant has a lot of experience in the field. 

PG Diploma

  • Postgraduate Diploma.
  • Broadly equivalent to two thirds of a Masters.
  • The standard entry for some careers.
  • Sometimes entry without a degree is possible if the applicant has a lot of experience in the field. 

Masters (MA, MSc)

  • Typically taken in one year.
  • Possible to do a research or taught Masters, the first of which expects the student to do an extensive piece of research and write a more extensive dissertation.
  • Some universities entitle graduates automatically to use the name Masters a number of years after finishing their degree, such as Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Some universities and some faculties may offer masters courses as a first degree, rather than a BA/BSc.
  • You normally would need at least a 2.1 or 2.2 degree to be able to get in.

Please note:

Undergraduate Masters in Scotland:

The four ancient Scottish universities offer a Master in Art (MA) at undergraduate level for students in Fine Art, Humanities, Social Sciences and Theology. This Masters will be awarded in the same way as the Batchelor's degree: 3rd class, 2.2, 2.1 and first class. it is offered with both Honours and Ordinary. Degrees in the sciences are BSc degrees with or without Honours. So, don't be surprised if you see someone with an MA Hons…

Please have a look on and for more information.


  • Typically takes 3 years to complete but can take much longer.
  • Mainly requires research consisting of original work in the form of a dissertation or thesis.
  • PhD degrees are generally academic, but there are some professional PhDs in subjects such as engineering etc…
  • Not to be confused with an MD degree, which is a professional degree in medicine to become a medical doctor.

For more information, check out but also university websites.

T Levels

Very new qualification set up by the government to increase the quality of education and to minimise confusion with the myriad of vocational qualifications on offer. They will be phased in gradually from 2020 and offer a strong work based component in a real work environment. They are described as vocational A levels and there are plans for a conversion course to allow easy access to university.

Please see this government website for more information.