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Qualifications Explained: Your Guide to the RQF & Vocational Qualifications



Qualifications Explained: Your Guide to the RQF and Vocational Qualifications in the UK

You will have seen the acronyms and terminology time and time again: RQF, QCF, NVQ, HND, accredited, qualification, Diploma, Certificate, Award… often included in the course titles that you find on our website. All of these terms exist not (as it may seem) to confuse you, but rather as specific indicators that give you important information about what you will have achieved once you complete a given course or training programme.

So what do they all mean?

Well, let’s start at the beginning: what they all have in common is that they refer to a form of training that results in a qualification.

What is a qualification?

To put it simply, a qualification is a way of outlining what you have learnt, and what you are able to do as a result of that learning process. Perhaps it is easiest to think of them in terms of the document that you physically possess once you have completed the learning programme: a piece of paper that attests to what you know and/or what you can do.
They exist in a number of different forms, but in essence we can say that there are two main macro-level categories into which qualifications can more or less accurately be split: academic and vocational.

Academic Qualifications

Academic qualifications are more commonly associated with the traditional education system, which includes GCSEs, AS & A Levels and, for some, a Bachelor’s or more advanced Master’s degree from a University or Higher Education Institution (HEI). The main characteristic of these qualifications is that they focus on knowledge – often divided by subject and assessed via exams, they tell potential employers what you know.

Vocational Qualifications

Vocational qualifications, on the other hand, are much more focused on skills and therefore not so much on what you know but on what you can do. Rather than covering a generic subject, they are dedicated to a specific profession or vocation, focusing on the practical abilities you need to be employed in that sector. To give you an example, while a Mathematics GCSE would teach you a broad range of mathematical principles to develop your overall understanding of maths, a vocational qualification such as Level 3 Diploma in Accounting would focus on teaching you the maths skills you need for the purpose of finding a job as an Accountant (alongside the other competencies you need to fill such a role).


An apprenticeship is a particular type of vocational education that typically combines practical training in a real workplace with classroom learning.

Apprenticeships are available at different levels and are thus suitable for a wide spectrum of individuals, from 16 years olds with no previous experience to experienced professionals looking to gain Master's level skills or train for new roles.

Academic or Vocational - Which is Better?

Both are valuable in their own way and, contrary to popular belief, do not bind you to one or the other route for the rest of your life. In other words, someone who progresses along a vocational route can decide to approach higher (academic) education later on in life, while many people with Bachelor’s degrees decide to build on their practical (vocational) skills after they have begun their careers. This is mainly due to the fact that the increasingly positive status of vocational qualifications has led to the development of a structured framework for their recognition and, crucially, a concerted effort to use this scheme to make them easily comparable with their academic counterparts.

Last updated: 06 Apr 2017

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