Levels of education: What do they mean?

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With so many different qualifications flying around, it can be hard to keep track of what each one means – not to mention where it could lead to next. But with comprehensive frameworks put in place throughout the UK, it needn’t take too long to get to grips with the basics. No matter what stage you’re currently at.

To help you work out where to go next, here’s everything you need to know about the different levels of education:


How many levels of education are there?

This will depend on what country you’re studying in.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are eight different levels of education – as well as an entry level, to help you begin studying. These are set out by something known as the RQF.

In Scotland, there are 12 different levels of education. These are set out by something known as the SCQF.



The Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) provides a formal way of structuring the different levels of education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It was introduced in 2015, effectively combing the two previous frameworks, the NQF and the QCF.


Entry Level

What it means

Entry level is the most basic form of qualification, and usually provides an introduction into education. They aren’t generally compulsory.

Entry level qualifications are available three different sub-categories, which progressively get more difficult: entry levels 1, 2 and 3.

Examples of entry level qualifications include:

  • Entry level functional or essential skills
  • Entry level awards and diplomas
  • Entry level certificates (ELCs)
  • Entry level English for foreign language speakers (ESOL)
  • Skills for Life


Perfect for

Anyone looking to learn a new subject or language, as well as those looking to enter formal education.


Level 1

What it means

Often achieved in Years 10 and 11 of secondary school, Level 1 qualifications are the first formal rung on the numbered system of qualifications.

Examples of Level 1 qualifications include:

  • GCSE (grades D, E, F or G)
  • Level 1 functional or essential skills
  • Level 1 awards and diplomas
  • Level 1 certificates
  • Level 1 National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)
  • Music grades 1, 2 and 3
  • Level 1 ESOL


Perfect for

Those aged 15-6, or anyone looking to further their education. You won’t necessarily have to complete an entry level qualification to move onto Level 1.


Level 2

What it means

Level 2 is the next step up from Level 1, and is also often achieved in Years 10 and 11.

Examples of Level 2 qualifications include:

  • GCSE (grades A*, A, B or C)
  • O level (grades A, B or C)
  • Grade 1 at CSE level
  • Level 2 functional or essential skills
  • Level 2 awards and diplomas
  • Level 2 certificates
  • Level 2 NVQ
  • Music grades 4 and 5
  • Intermediate apprenticeships
  • Level 2 ESOL


Perfect for

Those aged 15-6, or anyone looking to further their education. Because of the high standard of their grades, Level 2 learners will usually progress to Level 3 qualifications.


Level 3

What it means

Level 3 generally shows greater knowledge in a subject, and is often achieved in Years 12 and 13, or in centres for further education.

Examples of Level 3 qualifications include:

  • A level (grades A, B, C, D or E)
  • Advanced subsidiary (AS) level
  • Tech level
  • Applied general
  • Level 3 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Level 3 NVQ
  • Music grades 6, 7 and 8
  • Advanced apprenticeships
  • Access to higher education diploma
  • International Baccalaureate diploma
  • Level 3 ESOL


Perfect for

Those who are looking to continue their education after the minimum school leaving age, or who want to specialise in a particular subject.


Level 4

What it means

Level 4 is indicative of a greater understanding and a higher level of learning than that gained through core modules at secondary education level.

Examples of Level 4 qualifications include:

  • Higher national certificate (HNC)
  • Certificate of higher education (CertHE)
  • Level 4 awards
  • Level 4 diplomas
  • Level 4 certificates
  • Level 4 NVQ
  • Higher apprenticeships


Perfect for

Level 4 acts as the bridge between level 3 and 5, and can help people progress to the next stage of education when they might not have been able to with their previous qualifications.


Level 5

What it means

Level 5 demonstrates knowledge of a subject which goes beyond what was taught during secondary education.

Examples of Level 5 qualifications include:

  • Foundation degree
  • Higher national diploma (HND)
  • Diploma of higher education (DipHE)
  • Level 5 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Level 5 NVQ


Perfect for

Anyone looking to move on to university, or other forms of higher education.


Level 6

What it means

Level 6 refers to qualifications gained at degree level, indicating the bearer has graduated from a centre for further education.

Examples of Level 6 qualifications include:

  • Bachelor’s degree (with or without honours)
  • Graduate diploma
  • Graduate certificate
  • Level 6 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Level 6 NVQ
  • Degree apprenticeship


Perfect for

Anyone who wants to take their knowledge of a subject past secondary education level – whether that’s to gain a degree of a higher level NVQ or certificate. Also the first step for those looking to pursue a master’s.


Level 7

What it means

Level 7 refers to a level of education equivalent to a master’s degree, and is generally attained in a centre for further education.

Examples of Level 7 qualifications include:

  • Master’s degree
  • Integrated master’s degree
  • Postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE)
  • Postgraduate diplomas and certificates
  • Level 7 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Level 7 NVQ


Perfect for

Anyone looking for a qualification which validates knowledge beyond degree level. After Level 7, there’s only one more level – a doctorate (PhD) or its equivalent.


Level 8

What it means

Level 8 refers to a doctorate level of education, often known as a PhD.

Examples of Level 8 qualifications include:

  • Doctorate or PhD
  • Level 8 awards, diplomas and certificates


Perfect for

Anyone looking to achieve the highest formal level of education possible in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and/or become a fully qualified Doctor.



The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is the name for the structuring of qualifications used in Scotland.

Although it shares some similarities (and recognises some of the same qualifications), the SCQF operates independently from the RQF, and is made up of 12 distinct levels.

Once again, levels and qualifications range in difficulty, but are given to demonstrate as a guideline to see how your qualifications can progress.

Find out more about SCQFs here.



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