What are vocational qualifications?

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Vocational qualifications are practical qualifications that relate to a specific job or career sector.

Unlike more academic courses like A-levels, they combine a mix of theory and practical learning and you’ll probably do some work experience too.

There’s a huge range of different courses that you can do, and many types of qualifications you can get, from entry level to advanced. The length of the course depends on what level you study at.

Why should I study a vocational subject?

Vocational qualifications are a good option if you have a clear idea of what type of career or trade you’d like to work in. They can help you to get the specific skills you need to get your first job or progress further in your career. 

However, if you’re not sure yet what you want to do, you could find many (but not all) of the courses quite limiting, something we’ll explore further in this article.

You can take vocational qualifications from the age of 14 (although there are a lot more options from 16) alongside, instead of, or after, academic ones like GCSEs, A-levels or degrees.

Examples of vocational subjects and qualifications

Photo of a man cooking

There are literally hundreds of different vocational subjects that you can do. Here’s just a sample:

  • Accounting
  • Animal care
  • Beauty therapy
  • Business
  • Customer service
  • Construction
  • Child development
  • Electrical installation  
  • Engineering
  • Environmental services
  • Food technology
  • Gas installation
  • Hairdressing
  • Health and social care
  • Health and safety 
  • Heating and ventilation
  • Hospitality
  • IT
  • Journalism
  • Logistics
  • Management  
  • Manufacturing
  • Media and communications
  • Plumbing
  • Retail
  • Warehousing

Entry requirements to these courses vary depending on the level you want to study at, and the qualification you’ll get at the end depends on the subject, where you are working (if you study on the job) and the organisation awarding it. Here are some examples:

BTEC

Business and Technology Education Council qualifications (BTECs) have been around for over 30 years and are designed to give you the skills that businesses are looking for.

You could go straight into work or onto further study with a BTEC. There are options at many levels, everything from levels below GCSE to levels that are equal to a degree.

NVQ

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are based on the national occupational standards for each career sector. National occupational standards are lists of skills and knowledge that employers say you need to be able to work in a certain sector.

Usually you get the knowledge and skills you need for an NVQ by being trained while you are working, rather than at college, so they are good for people who want to combine working and learning. They are available from Level 1 (equivalent to one GCSE) to Level 8 (equivalent to a postgraduate degree level).   

They are usually studied part-time and can be taken as a stand-alone qualification or as part of an apprenticeship.

OCR Cambridge Nationals

Cambridge Nationals have been around since 2012 and are designed for students aged 14-16. They are linked to different industries, and geared to the requirements of each career sector. They take the same amount of time as GCSEs.

Diploma

The aim of diplomas is to give students practical training and work experience while learning. That means you get out into the workplace more and there’s less classroom-based learning compared to A-levels.

You can study for a diploma at four levels – foundation, higher (HND), progression and advanced. A foundation diploma is equivalent to five GCSEs at grades D to G and an advanced diploma is worth 3.5 A-levels.

Where can I study for a vocational qualification?

You can study at school, sixth form, college, university, as part of an apprenticeship or while you are working.

But not all institutions offer them, so it’s important to speak to your careers adviser and do some research if you think they might be an option for you.

At school you might take a vocational qualification by itself or in combination with GCSEs or A-levels. There are lots of specialist colleges out there that offer these courses and have good links with local businesses.  

What are the benefits of studying for vocational qualifications?

Photo of a man reading a business paperVocational courses have been developed in partnership with employers and professional and trade organisations, which means that you’ll be learning the skills that employers want – great for your CV and career.

You’ll develop real-life skills as well as learning theory, and there will be a more practical approach compared to traditional courses like A-levels, which will help you to leave education ready for the world of work.

If you know what job or career you want to pursue, then this can be a good way to make sure that you develop the right skills and knowledge for that role.

Also, if you live in England you now have to stay in some form of education or training until you’re 18. So if you’ve had enough of school and you want to work while studying part-time, a vocational qualification could be a good option for you.

If you’re weighing up a vocational qualification against university, you might be interested to know that vocational courses are often shorter than degrees. If you’re in a hurry to start work, this will be a plus for you.

Are there any down sides?

Vocational subjects are designed to prepare you for one career or industry. If you’re not sure what you want to do yet, you may find that a vocational course is too specific.

If you’re weighing up your post-16 options, then some vocational courses take up more of the timetable than a single A-level, so you won’t be able to study as many different subjects.

If you’re comparing a vocational route to university, a vocational qualification might leave you with fewer options. The benefit of a degree is that it can open up the door to lots of different careers, which means that you don’t have to decide what you want to do right now.

Why are they different from A-levels or the International Baccalaureate?

A-levels are more academic and you will spend a lot of your time in the classroom, learning theory, writing essays, doing coursework and studying for exams.

Vocational qualifications are more directly linked to the world of work and involve more project work, problem solving, skills development and work experience.

This infographic shows the different academic and vocational options open to school leavers at 16 and 18 (right clicks and select "Open image in new tab" to see a bigger version):

City & Guilds academic and vocational options

How do they compare to A-levels?

Level 3 vocational qualifications are equivalent to A-levels, but if you are planning to do a degree, A-levels may be a better option as they are more widely accepted by universities.

What are the new vocational courses?

There has been a reform of vocational qualifications recently because the government was worried some of the qualifications weren’t of a good quality. This led to thousands of qualifications being scrapped and some new ones being created.

From September 2015, if you’re aged 14-16 you can take Technical Awards alongside GCSEs, which will give you real-life practical and technical skills. You can study up to three alongside a minimum of five core GCSEs (including English and maths).

These qualifications will have to meet tough new government criteria to make sure that they are "gold standard".

For those of you aged 16-19 you can take Tech-levels, covering subjects like design engineering, IT networking and IT user support.

The government reform has led to different organisations developing courses and qualifications that meet the new criteria. They include:

TechBac

The TechBac is a new technical qualification by City & Guilds, designed to give 14 to 19-year-olds the technical and professional skills they need to progress onto an apprenticeship, into university or into the jobs market.

It has been designed in partnership with industry and combines learning with practical work experience. There will be more than 80 additional technical qualifications available from September 2016 (as long as the Department for Education approves them).

Cambridge Technical

The Cambridge Technical is another new qualification designed to meet the Department for Education’s new guidance. The first one (engineering) was launched this year with the rest coming in September 2016.

They have been developed with input from universities, key employers and industry experts and include: art and design, business, digital media, health and social care, IT, performing arts, science, and sport and physical activity.

Are my career options limited if I study them?

Vocational qualifications can open the door to lots of opportunities – from getting a first job, to doing an apprenticeship, or going on to further study.

If you’re confident that you know exactly what job you want to do (like being a plumber), then they’re a good option. And, even if you want to do a career that requires a degree, you can still go on to study for that afterwards. 

However, these qualifications are very specific to certain jobs and industries, and that’s where you could find yourself a little limited.

For example, say you do a hairdressing course and then decide it’s not for you and you want to work in media instead. You may find that your hairdressing NVQ is not valued by media employers, and so you’ll need to consider doing further study or applying for an apprenticeship to get relevant experience.

There have been reports in the news that many so-called vocational courses are "dead end" and don’t actually lead to jobs – and that’s why the government removed thousands of them.

However it’s important not to tarnish all courses with the same brush because many vocational qualifications are highly valued, so just make sure that you do your research, and ensure that the course you are doing is recognised and approved by the appropriate trade body (the group that represents employers).

Are they recognised by universities?

Not all universities (or courses) accept vocational qualifications – some will only give you a place if you have A-levels.

However, a lot of universities will accept a Level 3 vocational qualification or a more advanced one, especially if the course you’re applying to is related to your vocational qualification.

If you are still considering university and want to know whether you can apply with a vocational qualification, the best thing is to check the exact entry requirements for the courses you are considering. For more advice speak to your careers advisor or have a look on the UCAS website.

Apprenticeships: Get paid, get qualifications and get trained

An apprenticeship is an amazing way to train for a job while earning a wage.

Learn more now

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