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.