GCSE equivalents: What you need to know

Feel like the lack of a GCSE qualification is letting you down?

Whether it’s because you didn’t get good grades before finishing school, you’re looking to move into a new industry, or you’re worried a previous certification is no longer recognised, it’s common for people of all ages to worry about their credentials.

To help you get-to-grips with what qualifications are out there, here’s a quick guide to GCSE equivalents – and how they could benefit your career:


BTEC Firsts

What are BTEC Firsts? BTEC Firsts are skills-based qualifications that balance theory with practical experience and project work. They focus on industry-specific knowledge and are designed to be a direct pathway to a career in specific sectors. Unlike regular GCSEs, BTEC Firsts are mostly assessed by coursework rather than a series of exams.

What subjects can I do? There are a wide range of BTEC subjects available, with the most popular being Business, Engineering, Construction, Sport and Performing Arts.

Who’s it for? People who have a clear career path and wish to gain a firm understanding of the sector. BTEC Firsts can also be taken part-time by those already in work, who wish to progress their career.

GCSE equivalent A BTEC First (level 1-2) is equivalent to 4 GCSEs

Progression Most students move directly into employment or apprenticeships after completing a BTEC First – but for those wanting further real-world knowledge behind them, a BTEC National (Level 3) is the equivalent of an A Level.

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Cambridge Nationals

What are Cambridge Nationals? Cambridge Nationals are similar to BTEC Firsts, and are the newer version of the more widely known OCR Nationals. Cambridge Nationals have a strong vocational element, reflected in assessment tasks and practical work. Cambridge Nationals also have the bonus feature of recognising students’ strengths. A pleasing performance in some units will compensate for a weaker performance in others. Distinctions are also offered to high achievers.

What subjects can I do? The six Cambridge Nationals on offer are ICT, Business, Science, Science in the Workplace, Health and Social Care and Sport.

Who’s it for? People who prefer a practical approach to their study, and plan to move directly into the workforce as soon as they’ve finished studying.

GCSE equivalent A Cambridge National (Level 2) is equivalent to 4 GCSEs

Progression If a student decides not to move directly to the workforce, they can begin a vocational Cambridge Technical (A Level equivalent) or use their practical experience to help them secure an apprenticeship.



What are NVQs? An NVQ is a work-based qualification, allowing people to qualify in the workplace rather than a classroom. It’s a flexible learning route with some theory and no examinations – NVQ students are observed and assessed on the job. They’re primarily required to demonstrate that they can competently carry out tasks and meet national standards.

What subjects can I do? Most sectors have industry specific NVQs, but the more popular ones are Business and Administration, Hairdressing, Support Teaching and Childcare and Education.

Who’s it for? People who are currently employed but have no recognised qualifications or formal education. Also good for those looking to work in more practical-based industries, which may not have offered qualifications during the school curriculum.

GCSE equivalent An NVQ2 is equivalent to 4-5 GCSEs

Progression An NVQ3 is similar to an A Level and, as it provides specific industry training, it further increases employability.

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NVQ levels: What you need to know


Functional Skills

What are Functional Skills? Functional Skills has been introduced to overcome employers’ concerns that some job seekers lack the basic skills to be effective employees. Furthermore, people already in the workforce often feel a boost in their confidence and motivation after receiving a achieving a Functional Skill. The courses focus on real-life problem solving and the application of knowledge and skills to everyday situations. Delivery is flexible. Assessment is on-demand and students have a choice of paper or on-screen tasks.

What subjects can I do? Functional skills can be taken in English, Maths or ICT and gaining this qualification is looked upon favourably by employers.

Who’s it for? Although designed for young people, Functional Skills can be taken by anyone who has a gap in their core skill set.

GCSE equivalent Functional Skills Level 2 is equivalent to one GCSE

Progression Functional Skills are a qualification in their own right, and are a necessary requirement for apprenticeships if GCSEs in English and Maths have not been obtained.

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How do I get started?

If you’re interested in certifying your skills and improving your employment opportunities, don’t put it off. As with GCSEs, most of the courses above can be taken at any time, and during any stage in your career.

What’s more, there may be a number of other professional qualifications out there which could supersede the need for you to do your GCSEs. To find the right certification for you, visit our dedicated courses section now.

Remember: it’s never too late to push your career in the right direction.

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A Level and GCSE retakes: Why it’s never too late to resit your exams

Levels of education: What do they mean?


Ready to find your perfect match? View all available courses now.