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Navigating England’s Educational Qualifications: A Guide for Parents

By Mary Andrews

The range of qualifications available to not just our young ones but potentially to all of us these days is mind-boggling and I often hear from my career direction clients that they don’t know where to begin in helping their child to choose the right option for them. Not only can it be hard for us to know what subjects might be right for our children, but the array of differently named qualifications together with the apparently ever changing grading and levels of some exams, make decisions even more challenging. At the same time, many of us can feel frustrated and hindered that our children are often limited to taking what our local school or college offers, potentially meaning little choice for us at all. 

Nevertheless, if you are concerned to understand something about the different qualifications available so that you can help your child make the right choice for them (see my career advice service), please read on as I aim to highlight the features of the most commonly available qualifications and discuss some practical implications. 


Most of you will be familiar with the General Certificate of Secondary Education, GCSE, a qualification that has been around since 1986, first exams having been taken in 1988.

Too easy?

In recent years the GCSE has come under criticism as more and more pupils were gaining As or A*s. In 1994, for example, 13% of candidates were awarded an A or A* while in 2011 this rose to 23.2%, according to figures calculated by Brian Stubbs. Some argued the courses were ‘too easy’ and many were against the coursework and teacher assessment elements which some regarded as more open to ‘cheating’ than traditional exams.

Time for a makeover..

So, GCSEs were revamped to cover more challenging content and to make them more exam based. There is also now a lot more ‘rote’ learning, for example of formulas in maths and science and quotes in English literature. Some students see this as unnecessary as they won’t need to know Shakespearean quotes or algebraic formulas off by heart to get by in real life. There certainly does seem to be a lot of learning involved and I’ve not heard anyone dispute that the new GSCEs are harder.

Another change is that GCSEs are now graded using numbers 1-9 instead of letters with Grade 4 recognised as the lowest level to be deemed a pass and grade 9 the highest. The changes were phased in starting with English and Maths in 2017 and most other traditional secondary school subjects such as history, French and science, in 2018. All subjects are now graded this way at GCSE.

Are all GCSEs equal?

You may know that GCSEs come in higher and foundation tiers. If your child takes a foundation tier GCSE, the highest grade they can get is a 5. In theory, schools usually don’t need to decide until around February before the summer exams which tier a student will be entered for in each subject. However, often the syllabus and questions for the two tiers are not always the same. So, it’s not necessarily straightforward to transfer your child from one tier to another after the end of year 10.

One final point to mention is the existence of so many different exam boards (bodies such as Edexcel, WJEC and AQA that normally set and mark the exams). These not only add to the confusion but also open up GCSEs to questions over consistency of standards.

A Levels

Their full title is Advanced Level General Certificate of Education. These exams, usually taken at the end of year 13, are considered by most to be the ‘Go to’ option for reasonably academic children who would like to go to university. Many of my career direction clients seek advice on A level choice as it’s not always an easy decision. (See Six factors to consider when helping your daughters and sons choose A levels).

Unlike GCSEs, A Levels have been left relatively untouched since their introduction in 1951. The biggest change came in 2000 with the introduction of Advanced Subsidiary (AS Levels) in year one of study and A2 in year two. The courses became more modular, three modules in year one and a further three in year two, meaning students could have a qualification with a pass grade A-E, at the end of one year.

However, AS Levels were scrapped and from 2017 the system more or less reverted back to what it was before, but maybe harder. As with GCSE reforms, A levels now incorporate less coursework and fewer practical assessments and so are more exam based. Much to some people’s relief, A Levels in subjects such as Critical Thinking, Citizenship Studies and General Studies were scrapped.


If you’re anything like me, you won’t find this the most intuitive of qualification names. BTEC stands for Business and Technology Education Council and is so called because the Business and Technology Education Council was the body created to oversee and award the qualification in 1984 when it was first introduced. The intention behind the BTEC qualification was to cover more vocational or practical subjects and so give students a choice that wasn’t purely academic. Hence you can’t do a BTEC in history or English.

Some of you reading this may consider BTECs as a ‘poor relation’ and not a course you would particularly like your children to take but please don’t be too dismissive as many youngsters can have very good prospects on the back of BTECs including university degrees and professional level qualifications.

BTECs are currently described as specialist work related qualifications and there are over 2,000 BTEC qualifications across 16 sectors including engineering, applied science and public services. They are recognised in more than 100 countries. They usually consist of core units, optional units and written/activity based assignments and are generally seen as involving more course work and fewer exams than GCSEs and A Levels.

The most confusing aspect of BTECs is that they can be taken at a number of levels. The table below highlights the most common BTECs but be warned! this is not an exhaustive list.

BTEC level Name Equivalent to
3 National Certificate AS Level
National Extended Certificate One A Level
National Diploma Two A Levels
National Extended Diploma Three A Levels
Foundation Diploma (for some art & design courses)
4 Higher National Undergraduate (1st year)
5 Higher National Undergraduate (2nd year)
6 Professional Undergraduate
7 Professional Postgraduate study

T Levels

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve not heard of these. T levels are a new skills based technical qualification designed to follow GCSEs and to increase the quality and competitiveness of our technical training. At the same time, they are ‘competitors’ to BTECs and A Levels. The first T levels are scheduled to be introduced in September 2020 within the following arenas and all will include an industry placement:

  • Digital production, design and development
  • Design, surveying and planning
  • Education

More courses will be introduced each year until 2023 by which time there will be T Levels available in 25 areas including accountancy, legal and science.

Their main selling point is that they:

  • Will be skills based
  • Offer industrial placements and so real experience
  • Have been developed with employers and businesses to meet industry needs
  • Prepare students for work

Initially only 52 colleges will be recognised providers of the T Level so perhaps not everyone will have access to them.

Whether Covid-19 will impact their introduction is not clear. 

International Baccalaureate

Finally, the last bit! The International Baccalaureate (IB), a two-year Diploma course, started life in 1968 and was first taught in the UK in 1971. It seems like something that was just there in the background, but it has gradually grown in popularity from something that was commonly associated with Europe, particularly Switzerland and France, and independent schools, to a qualification that is well respected and available in some state schools too.

It is considered demanding but rewarding and consists of three compulsory core elements:

  • Theory of knowledge – students learn where knowledge comes from, how to analyse evidence and how to argue a point (although you probably consider many of them too good at arguing their points!)
  • Creativity, action and service – the IB encourages students to get involved in theatre and musical activities, sports and/or community service
  • Extended essay – a requirement is to choose and research a topic of interest and write a 4000 word essay

And six subjects, three at standard level and three at higher level. These are chosen from:

  • A first language
  • A second language
  • Experimental sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, design technology)
  • Maths and computer science
  • The arts (visual, theatre and music)
  • Individuals and society (history, psychology, geography)

People like the IB because it offers a more rounded curriculum to A Levels and is widely accepted in English universities as well as overseas. Its broad curriculum encourages critical thinking and intercultural understanding. The extended essay encourages independent research, analysis of evidence and writing skills. The IB syllabus also enshrines voluntary work, community service and extracurricular activities and arguably gives students a more rounded experience and so better preparation for the adult world of work and university.

Unlike A levels, on the whole, the IB seems subject to less criticism and seems to maintain consistently high standards. Some might raise an eyebrow because of the lack of emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths and it does seem to be the case that students who prefer these subjects are more likely to study them as A Levels rather than take the IB. Certainly, at the moment, just under 5000 students take the IB compared to approximately 700,000 who study A Levels.

In conclusion, the range of qualifications available is wide and varied. I hope you have gained some clarity around the qualifications available to our children and that this will prove useful. 

Mary Andrews Portrait

Mary Andrews, MSc, IDC, MBPsS, PMABP, AssocISFCP is a qualified coach and career analyst.

With a background in HR and psychology, since 2011 she has been helping professionals and students find direction and thrive in their careers and life.

Make changes that stick. If you want to move from feeling unhappy and dissatisfied to content and fulfilled, contact me for a free without obligation conversation.