So far in the A Level Alternatives series we have concentrated on qualifications aimed at 16–19 year-olds in school or college. This week, we take a step away from the classroom for a brief introduction to the world of workplace learning.

A quick guide to abbreviations

During education, you may have come across terms like ‘Level 3 qualifications’, ‘QCF’ and ‘Ofqual’ – phrases which are pretty difficult to guess the definition of. Some of these are important for today’s discussion, so you can find out what they mean below:

  • Ofqual – the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation. A government department in charge of regulating all qualifications and exams in England, including A levels.
  • NQF – the National Qualifications Framework. This was the first framework drawn up by Ofqual to provide structure to qualifications and allow them to be assessed and improved. It was replaced in 2010 by the…
  • QCF – the Qualifications and Credit Framework. A new and improved framework. Then, in 2015, a newer framework was created, called the…
  • RQF – the Regulated Qualifications Framework. By 2020, all qualifications using the NQF and QCF are planned to be moved over to the RQF. One of the most useful parts about a framework like the RQF is that it allows comparisons to be made between qualifications through level categorisation. For example, the RQF identifies A levels as a Level 3 qualification.
  • NVQ – National Vocational Qualification (SVQ or Scottish Vocational Qualification is the Scottish equivalent). This phrase was created while the NQF was in use, but it remains a popular catch-all term for competence-based qualifications. NVQs are what we’ll be looking at today.

What are they?

The qualifications we’ve looked into in previous instalments of this series have their differences, but they all essentially cater for those who choose to stay in full-time education. But not everyone takes this path. Going straight into full-time employment isn’t the only alternative, however, with NVQs, apprenticeships and traineeships on offer. NB This article focuses on NVQs; apprenticeships and traineeships will be considered next time.

As I mentioned in the short glossary above, NVQ stands for National Vocational Qualification. The term includes a vast range of courses that are designed to develop specific workplace skills. They are available on many of the RQF levels, but the Level 3 qualifications are most closely aligned with A levels. They are maintained by hundreds of organisations: some are educational bodies, including City & Guilds, NCFE and Pearson Edexcel. Others are industry-specific organisations and professional bodies, like British Wheel of Yoga Qualifications and the Professional Lighting and Sound Association.

NVQs are often undertaken by people who want to develop skills in their current job. But they can also be taken to make you more employable in a specific industry that interests you. This second case is probably more likely if you’re thinking of leaving full-time education after GCSEs. It is also possible to study towards an NVQ whilst in school part-time, but you will need a job placement so you can showcase your development.


How do they work?

NVQs are designed to be very flexible qualifications, and there is a lot of variation between the many different courses on offer. There are no time restrictions, but a Level 3 generally takes about a year to complete.

As mentioned in the previous section, you must have at least a part-time job in a relevant field in order to build a portfolio and prove to assessors that you can carry out workplace tasks and to provide evidence of the skills that you have developed.


What subjects can I study?

Pretty much every career path will have relevant NVQs to explore, especially since professional bodies can create and regulate their own qualifications.


How will I be assessed?

You will be judged by an assessor, who will examine your portfolio and observe your performance at work. There are no written exams, and the units within each qualification can be taken at your own pace.


What are they worth?

NVQs are not considered academic qualifications at all, and they are not awarded any UCAS points. So if you have any plans to go to university, NVQs should not be your main qualification. However, using the RQF, an NVQ level 3 is roughly equivalent to 2 A levels.

Outside of academia, NVQs are usually highly regarded by employers, who often use NVQs as training for their own workers. NVQs are based on national occupational standards which are in turn created by businesses in the relevant industry, so the skills you work on during the qualification should be directly applicable to the industry.



To conclude, the NVQ is a complete departure from the world of academic qualifications, with learning based largely in the workplace, and barely a written exam in sight. They offer valuable insights into work and can develop key industry-specific skills. Because of this, however, they won’t help you get a place at university, and aren’t always transferable between careers, so it is worth thinking carefully about your future plans before committing to a decision in either direction.