Disclaimer: any decision you make based on information anywhere on marcr.net is your responsibility only. Please, undertake enough research to make sure you are making the right decisions for you. By continuing on this website you confirm you are aware of this.

The Education system in England and Wales

Education system

The Grid below is for the education system in England and Wales, but also for Scotland, which is slightly different from that elsewhere in the UK. This grid is only a representation of course, as there are many exceptions. There are 3 year degrees in Scotland and 4 year degrees in England for instance.
A lot of what you will read below is general information and is best not take to be the ultimate truth. There are often exceptions, variances and specific particularities linked to many aspects of the education system in the UK.
Please click below for specific information on each of the different qualifications:
Academic Vocational Work-based

Secondary Education

Functional Skills – Entry Level

  •  Consists of courses at Entry level 1, 2 and 3
  •  Assessments are available on demand, internally marked and externally verified
  •  They form part of the Foundation Learning Programme for Entry Level learners


  • English consists of three components: speaking and listening, reading and writing at each level. These must be all passed for a candidate to receive a certificate
  • Mathematics consists of a single test at each level
  • ICT consists of a single test at each level which is taken using a computer


  • GCSEs or college courses level 1


General Certificate of Secondary Education

  • Main qualification taken in schools but you can take them at any age
  • Mainly involves studying the theory of a subject combined with some investigative tasks
  • Also available to study by distance learning through www.nec.ac.uk
  • No formal entry requirements
  • At levels 1 and 2 on the National Qualifications Framework, depending on grade achieved
  • Available in over 40 subjects from science over art to languages

Graded by:

graded 9 to 1 (previously A* to G), though some papers are tiered according to ability and don’t target the full range:
  • Higher tier: 9 – 4
  • Foundation tier: 3 – 1
if you don’t have enough to pass with a 1 you will be awarded a U (‘unclassified’)


  • Usually studied full time taking 2 to 3 years to complete


  • Assessed by a combination of either exams or controlled assessment
  • From summer 2014 all GCSEs became linear instead of modular
  • Controlled assessments or coursework are taken less throughout the course with linear GCSEs. The intention is for this to a more exam based system


Depending on grades:
  • 9 – 4 (sometimes 5): A levels, college courses such as CACHE or BTEC level 2 or 3 depending, apprenticeships
  • 3 – 1: college courses such as CACHE or BTEC level 1 or 2 depending, apprenticeships

Further Education

A Level

General Certificate of Education (GCE) or Advanced Level
  • Normally studied after GCSE or International GCSE
  • Mainly involves studying the theory of a subject combined with investigative tasks
  • At level 3 on the National Qualifications Framework
  • Usually studied full time at school or college:
    • AS takes 1 year and is a qualification in itself but will not allow access to HE by itself
    • A2 or full A level is a two year course with an exam covering everything at the end
  • Available in over 30 subjects with sometimes an ‘applied alternative
  • Accrues UCAS or tariff points for university

Entry requirements:

  • 5 grades 4 or above at GCSE or equivalent
  • Many require now grades 5 or even 6 at GCSE in relevant subjects
  • Mature students may be accepted without these qualifications

Graded by:

Graded A* to E
  • A* was introduced in 2008
  • if you don’t have enough to pass with an E you will be awarded a U (‘unclassified’)


  • Usually studied full time taking 2 years to complete


  • Assessed in a variety of ways
    • all A levels contain exams taken throughout the course in january or the summer; there is a tendency towards end of year or even end of course exams
    • may also be assessed through coursework, research, essays, projects, investigative work, artwork, fieldwork, experiments or other practicals


  • Mainly Higher Education; college, apprenticeship and employment also possible.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

An academically challenging programme with final examinations Programme Core:

  • Extended Essay: independent research through an in depth study of a subject
  • Theory of Knowledge: unifies a range of academic disciplines
  • Creativity, Action, Service (CAS): a range of activities alongside academic studies
    • creativity encourages students to engage in the arts and creative thinking
    • action helps students develop a healthy lifestyle through activity and sport
    • service within the community offers new ways of learning with real academic value
  • Accrues UCAS or tariff points for university


  • To ensure breadth of knowledge choose 1 subject from each of 5 subject groups
  • Choose an art subject from group 6 or an extra subject from one of the 5 other groups

Entry requirements:

  • 5 grades C or above at GCSE or equivalent

Graded by:

  • Each course marked from 1, the lowest to 7 the highest
  • Up to 3 additional points awarded for combined results on theory and extended essay
  • Diploma is awarded to students who gain at least 24 points, subject to minimum levels of performance across the whole programme and satisfactory participation in CAS module
  • The highest total that can be awarded is 45 points


  • Usually studied full time taking 2 years to complete


  • Written exams at the end of the programme
  • Assessment tasks to be completed in school
  • Student’s performance is measured against pre-defined assessment criteria


  • Mainly intended to be Higher Education (abroad easily possible)

T Levels

These are very new qualifications starting their life in 2020 but only at some colleges throughout the country. It’s a good idea to look up your local college and have a look on their website. There is also the following information: https://www.wired-gov.net/wg/news.nsf/articles/Further+Education+providers+invited+to+deliver+new+T+Levels+17012019121000 There are 22 planned courses or categories that will have more teaching hours than most current technical programs and will include a compulsory work placement of 45 to 60 working days. They are two year, level 3 study programmes and are asubstantial technical qualification:
  • practical skills and knowledge specific to their chosen industry and occupation
  • at least 45 days’ industry placement in their chosen industry or occupation
  • English, maths and digital skills.
T Levels will become one of three major options when a student reaches level 3, alongside apprenticeships for students who wish to study and train for a specific occupation ‘on the job’, and A levels for students who wish to continue academic education. They are intended to eventually replace BTECs and co. T Level study programmes will include the following mandatory elements:
  • a ‘core’ set of underpinning knowledge, concepts and skills, tailored for their chosen industry and occupation: ‘core content’
  • specialist training covering occupational or industry – specific skills: ‘occupational specialist content’
  • an industry placement with an employer, which will last for 45 working days
The first three T-levels, in education and childcare, construction and digital, won’t be introduced until 2020 – see relevant flow chart for colleges in the area. As you will see, they are more important for West Dorset young people/advisers to know about than those in Bournemouth and Poole. Interesting reading (and a more critical view by some stakeholders) is also: On bridging provision (to bridge the ‘gap’ between T Levels and University) there is pretty little I have been able to find so far. So it seems a lot still needs to happen and be put in place before it all works (lets hope it does…). In the same vein, there is little decided yet on ucas points for T levels, but one can assume this is going to happen.  https://www.eef.org.uk/campaigning/news-blogs-and-publications/blogs/2018/jul/what-is-the-latest-on-t-levels-5-key-takeaways-from-the-governments-response https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/711472/Implementation_of_T_Level_programmes-Government_consultation_response.pdf What about those who don’t get the entry qualifications for the level 3 T-Level (nothing is sure but we can guess what it’s going to be…). There is supposed to be a transition course/year but alas, there too, nothing is set in stone yet. At least, nothing I can find…


Business and Technology Education Council Work related qualifications that accommodate the needs of employers
  • Accrues UCAS or tariff points for university at level 3 and ¾ (art foundation course)


  • Provides a more practical approach alongside theoretical background
  • Can be taken alongside GCSEs or A levels


  • Modular; in order to complete each unit, students must achieve against set outcomes and build up sufficient modules to complete a qualification level.

Entry requirements:

  • Dependent on level:
    • Entry level and level 1: generally no specific entry requirements or below grade 3
    • Level 2: generally grade 3 at GCSE but depending on subject grade 4 and above
    • Level 3: generally GCSE grade4 or above
    • Foundation Diploma: Level 3 qualification; either BTEC or A levels
    • Level 4 HNC): level 3 qualification
    • Level 5 (HND): level 3 or level 4 qualification

Graded by:

  • Pass, Merit, Distinction


  • Extended diploma at level 3 and HND: 2 years full time
  • Other qualifications in general 1 year full time.


  • Not exam based or less exam based
  • Real life, work based case studies, projects and assessments


  • Employment
  • Higher or Degree Apprenticeship
  • Higher education, either HND, HNC Foundation Diploma or Degree if level 3 is achieved. See www.ucas.com for further details and for related UCAS/tariff points.


National Vocational Qualification
  • Are usually completed in the workplace but can sometimes be offered at college as well
  • Test ability to do the job and all the tasks necessary to offer good quality work
  • An NVQ covers all the main aspects of an occupation, including current best practice, health and safety, planning, etc…
  • NVQs may not be structured in a strict time framework as other courses are
  • There are no age limits and generally no special entry requirements
  • They are based on National Occupational Standards
Graded by:
  • Pass or fail, but sections can be retaken until competence is achieved
  • Variable
  • Assessment is through a portfolio:
    • you plan a task
    • you perform a task
    • you reflect on a task
  • Evidence provided through observation, work finished or a short reflection report
  • Testing happens through an internal assessor, an external assessor or both
  • Depending on level achieved but usually to a higher level NVQ
  • Sometimes progression into some courses in higher education/university is possible

Level 2 and Level 3 Apprenticeships

  • Not a qualification as such, but a way of learning
  • A mix of real work and learning
  • Linked to a (vocational) qualification or qualifications, including NVQ, City & Guilds, BTEC, HND, Foundation Degree,…
  • Apprentices earn a wage and get experience whilst working towards the qualifications and certificates needed for the profession
  • Available at intermediate (level 2), advanced (level 3)

Graded by:

  • Dependent on the qualification linked to the apprenticeship


  • Variable, dependent on the qualification linked to the apprenticeship


  • Assessment is dependent on the qualifications linked to the apprenticeship, but each apprenticeship consists of a framework of three strands:
    • a competence based element
    • a technical element
    • a skills element
Useful link for information and vacancies:

Higher Education

The qualifications for higher education are as confusing for many as the further education options are. It’s also important to be aware that, even though the Bologna Agreement should have made all the higher education qualifications in participating countries equal and easily comparable, there are some differences to the higher education system in Scotland that that in the rest of the UK. You can find information about these differences, which are historical, in the Masters section below.


  • 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 degree studies in Scotland, also see Masters below 

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… For degree studies in Scotland, also see Masters below 

Foundation Degree (Fda/Fdsc)

  • Equivalent to the second year of a degree.
  • 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.


    • 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.

Higher Apprenticeship – Degree Apprenticeship

To start a higher apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship you need an employer who is running the scheme. These will in the main be the larger companies as they will pay for your higher education course.
  • You can explore vacancies, ideas and options on:
  • You can apply through the vacancies on these websites or directly to employers.
  • 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.

Postgraduate Qualifications:


  • 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.


  • 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.
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…

PhD or Doctorate

  • Typically takes 3 years to complete.
  • 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.