Vocational qualifications

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Vocational education prepares students for work in a specific trade, craft or profession. There is a vocational course available for almost every career – from child-care, hairdressing, catering, engineering through to air cabin crew. Vocational courses are practical, skills-based programmes designed to develop the specific skills required by an industry.

The difference between academic and vocational qualifications

Academic qualifications, such as A levels, focus mainly on the theoretical side of a subject. Assessment is usually essay and exam-based and students are expected to be able to critically analyse information. A student will study for three A levels over two years, often in a range of subjects. Students need to be disciplined throughout their two-year course in order to use their cumulative knowledge to sit a three-hour exam at the end of the course.

Vocational qualifications are suited to those students who prefer coursework and who have an idea of the area in which they would like to work. From the beginning of a course, content is focused on developing the skills needed to work in a specific industry. There will, of course, always be some theory to be learnt, but it will be directly related to the industry. Periods of work experience will also be built into the course to ensure that students are able to put theory into practice.

It is important to note that academic study is not superior to, or harder than vocational study – there is just a different approach taken to learning with each. A Level 3 qualification is usually equivalent to an A level and both are accepted by most universities for entrance onto a degree programme.

It is also important to check the entry requirements for particular careers. In the health and medicine field, for example, a doctor will have needed to have studied A levels followed by a degree in medicine; a care worker, however, may need to have passed a vocational course in health and social care.

Subject areas

The range of subject areas in which it is possible to study a vocational qualification is huge.

Here is an example of what one further education college offers:

  • Accounting
  • Beauty therapy
  • Business
  • Childcare
  • Construction
  • Computing, media production and games
  • Creative arts
  • Electrical installation
  • Engineering
  • Hairdressing
  • Health and social care
  • Hospitality and catering
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Marketing
  • Motor vehicle
  • Music
  • Performing arts
  • Plumbing
  • Public and uniformed services
  • Sport

Studying for a vocational qualification

Vocational qualifications are categorised according to their size and their level.

Each unit of a vocational course is given a credit value with one credit representing an estimated 10 hours of work. The credit value of the whole qualification determines its size:

  • Award (1 to 12 credits / up to 120 hours of work)
  • Certificate (13 to 36 credits / 130 – 360 hours of work)
  • Diploma (37 credits or more / over 370 hours of work)

So, the difference between an award and a certificate is not the difficulty but the length of the programme.

The level of the qualification can range from Entry Level to Level 5 and does determine the complexity of the course. A helpful measure is to view GCSEs (grade 4-9) as the equivalent of Level 2 qualifications, A levels as Level 3, and a degree as Level 5. With vocational qualifications it is not essential to study each level in order – depending on their level of ability a student might begin at Level 2 and move onto Level 3, or start immediately with Level 3.

Take a look at any college website, under any specific subject area and you will find a range of Level 1, 2 or 3 awards, certificates or diplomas. Entry requirements for each level will vary but each qualification can act as a stepping stone to the next level. For example, to study for a Level 2 Diploma in Beauty Therapy an applicant will need either two GCSEs at grade 3 or above, OR a Level 1 Diploma in Beauty Therapy.

At the end of the programme, after the completion of all assessments and assignments, a student will be awarded one of four overall grades:

  • D* – Distinction Star
  • D – Distinction
  • M – Merit
  • P – Pass

It is important to remember that Level 3 vocational qualifications are the equivalent of A levels and are accepted by the vast majority of universities for entry onto degree programmes. For example, a distinction grade in a City & Guilds Advanced Technical Extended Diploma in Health and Social Care is worth the same number of UCAS tariff points (144) as three grade A’s at A level.

There are a number of vocational qualifications available to study at school or college, or even whilst at work:

A popular option is to study for either a City & Guilds or a Pearson (BTEC) qualification. These awards, certificates and diplomas are widely recognised by employers and education institutions and are offered in almost every possible work area. Study for either a Pearson or a City & Guilds qualification can be part-time or full-time and will usually take place at a college. The structure of both are very similar and it will usually be the institution’s choice on awarding body that determines which qualification students’ study for. Study is a mixture of theory and practical sessions, work experience and research tasks. Whilst there is an exam-based element to the assessment of these courses, coursework carries a significant weight towards the final grade. Other awarding bodies offering vocational qualifications include OCR, CACHE and NCFE.

NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) are available to those students who are already in work and make a judgement on what a competent person in a particular job is expected to be able to do. Students are assessed according to these competencies to prove they are able to do that particular job properly. A portfolio of evidence is submitted and assessed and the student is observed carrying out the job. An assessor is looking for evidence of knowledge and competent performance in the workplace. NVQs are flexible and not time-limited, so a student takes as long as they need to, to prove their competency at the job.

As an example, it is possible to achieve an NVQ Level 3 Certificate in Advice and Guidance. This would be suited to someone working in an advisory role in an organisation. The student would need to study four mandatory units (covering communication, supporting clients, legislation and reviewing own practice); and three optional units, such as careers guidance, managing caseload and negotiation skills. They would then need to be observed in their workplace. Further information on NVQs can be found here.

A parent’s checklist

Does your son or daughter have a reasonable idea of what job or career they would like to do? If they do, a vocational qualification could be the right route for them

Does your son or daughter intend to go on to university? They should investigate both academic and vocational courses as both at Level 3 (excluding NVQs) are eligible for entry onto degree programmes

How well does your son or daughter cope with exams and essay writing? There is minimal essay writing required on vocational courses and a greater emphasis on coursework

How disciplined is your son or daughter? Can they commit to keeping on top of coursework throughout the course – a key part of a vocational qualification

If your son or daughter has an idea of the career they want, have they checked the entry requirements? Remember, for example, a doctor must have a degree but a care worker would benefit from a vocational qualification in health and social care

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