Qualification types in the UK: GCSEs, A-Levels, 11+, IB and CIE

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February 14, 2022
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In the UK, qualification types and levels can help youget an idea of a person’s education and preparation — whether their qualifications were achieved for professional or academic advancement. Qualifications are offered by the UK awarding bodies, also called examination boards (think AQA, CIE, OCR, etc.)

Even though qualifications are meant to make things easier and fairer — as to say, everyone’s preparation can be understood and compared to that of other candidates at a glance — the system can be quite confusing. Some UK qualifications are compulsory, many are optional, and others are only meant for those who want to study abroad. Some will boost your chances to get into Oxbridge, others will make your job application stand out.

Keep reading for a straightforward guide to qualifications in the UK. Easily figure out how they work, and discover the type of qualification you need to achieve your academic and personal goals.

Qualification types for UK students

UK students have a broad range of qualifications available to them to prove their academic and professional education. Not all are mandatory and formats can change depending on the awarding body. Find examples below.

Entry-level certifications

This type of qualification is awarded to individuals who acquire specific skills or take specific exams to expand their subject knowledge. Whether it’s a new language or hands-on skills employers look for, these certificates and diplomas can help your job and academic applications stand out. Entry-level qualifications don’t usually present entry requirements and include awards like:

GCSE — General Certificate of Secondary Education

GCSEs covers early academic education and are usually taken at the end of school year 11 by ages 15-16. They’re intense exams with mandatory core subjects like Maths and English. The majority of students in the UK take an average of 10 subjects. 

Low GCSE results can turn into a barrier to admission into college, internships, and more. Find out how to prepare for your GCSE.

A-Levels in the UK

A-Levels are a step up from GCSE exams and are taken towards the end of school — in Year 12 and 13, between the ages of 16 to 19. Generally, students take between 3 and 4 A-Levels in subjects of their choice and can decide to drop a subject after the first year.

A-Levels results are crucial to admission into university. Depending on the university and course of your choice, you may need to show proof of sufficient A-Levels results in one or more subjects.

To prepare for your A-Levels successfully, you’ll need good time management skills and the ability to study independently. Although they’re demanding and competitive, A-Levels can also be fun — it’s the first time you get to focus your studies on what you love the most, a first taste of what university education will be like! If you feel that you could use some help to reach your A-Level goals, you can get in touch and book a free assessment today.

IB — International Baccalaureate

As the name suggests, International Baccalaureate aims to give an international focus to a student’s education. IB studies are demanding programmes designed for learners aged 3-19 and require students to take 6 subjects. These cover the following: studies in language and literature, foreign language study, social studies, sciences, maths and creative arts.

CIE — Cambridge Assessment International Education

CIE is a type of qualification also known as pre-university, as it is a Cambridge University qualification intended to prepare students with life-long skills that can be applied in and outside of academia. The CIE is also a board of examination.

CIE was first established in the 19th century, is demanding but also prestigious, can replace GCSE exams and can boost an applicant’s chances to get into Oxbridge. 

SAT — Scholastic Assessment test

SAT is an entrance test for students aspiring to take undergraduate courses abroad, especially in the US and Canada. It’s a written exam that tests an applicant’s language and mathematical reasoning skills. 

SATs aren’t usually necessary for UK universities but are required by most institutions in the US, so if you’re planning to study abroad, you may have to take one.

Eleven Plus exams

Eleven Plus exams (commonly known as 11+) used to be compulsory qualifications for all UK pupils in year 6, but are now optional. 

11+ is a selective entrance examination used to show ability and potential to grammar schools and selective independent schools. The exam assesses verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, Maths, and English but formats can vary. Pass rates depend on how competitive the school is.

Qualification levels in the UK education system

Qualifications are grouped together into 9 levels meant to reflect a qualification’s difficulty, from Entry Level to Level 8. The higher the level, the more difficult the qualification is to obtain. Not all qualifications grouped in the same level take the same time or type of examinations to complete.

Find below a UK qualification table that highlights different levels in England, Wales, and Northern Island (Column RQF). Please note that Scotland has its own education system (SCQF) with separate levels.

Source: Wikipedia

Not sure what qualification you need or how to prepare? Get in touch for a free assessment and discuss your options with one of our expert tutors.


How many qualifications are there in the UK?

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland there are 9 qualification levels, organised in increasing difficulty from Entry Level to Level 8. Each level can include several qualification types. Scotland has its own 12-level system.

What are the UK qualification awarding bodies?

UK wading bodies are essentially the examination boards that test your skills and abilities required for a specific qualification — from professional awards to Post Graduate Diplomas. 

There are seven main examination boards in the United Kingdom:

  • AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance)
  • NCC Education
  • CIE (University of Cambridge International Examinations)
  • Edexcel
  • ICAAE (International Curriculum and Assessment Agency Examinations)
  • OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations)
  • WJEC