Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 00:27 UK

Qualifications glossary

college classroom
England's new Diplomas will mix practical and theoretical learning

More exam results are about to come out, as arguments continue over the merits of the latest changes to qualifications in the UK.

But do you know your Highers from your Higher Diplomas and your extended projects from your Extended Diplomas? Your IB Diploma from your Pre-U?

If not, read on ...


The General Certificate of Secondary Education is the main qualification taken by secondary school pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually as two-year courses between the ages of 14 and 16.

Syllabuses are being changed from 2009 except for GCSEs in English, English literature, ICT and maths which will start in 2010. GCSEs are examined through a mixture of coursework as well as module and final exams.

GCSEs are graded from A* down to G. Education ministers in England set targets for the number of pupils attaining the equivalent of at least five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths - which is also a typical requirement for progression to further education or going into employment.


The Advanced Subsidiary General Certificate of Education first half of an A-level and a qualification in its own right. It is usually made up of three modules and taken in the lower sixth form year or, sometimes, alongside GCSEs.


General Certificate of Education Usually taken over two years following GCSEs, and made up of an AS-level and an A2. The A2, also usually made up of three modules, is the second half of the A-level but unlike the AS-level is not a qualification in its own right.

A-levels, graded from A down to E, are the main qualification for university entry. Students generally take four AS-levels then three A-levels.

From September 2008 many A-levels will involve four papers rather than six. Other changes include the introduction of a top A* grade to distinguish those attaining more than 90% in their exams, and an optional extended project.


New qualifications combining applied and theoretical learning related mainly to different employment sectors, being introduced for the 14 to 19 age group in England only from September 2008.

They are available at three levels: Foundation, Higher (nothing to do with Scottish Highers) and Advanced.

Diplomas are a mixture of existing qualifications and new ones designed in collaboration with employers. They have three parts: principal learning, generic learning including work experience, and additional and specialist learning.

A Foundation Diploma will be equivalent to five GCSEs at the lower grades, D to G. A Higher Diploma will be equivalent to seven GCSEs at grade A* to C. An Advanced Diploma will be equivalent to three and a half A-levels.

There will also be a Progression Diploma worth two and a half A-levels for those who cannot complete a whole advanced Diploma.

Extended Diplomas at each level are intended to stretch the most capable learners. An extended project will be mandatory at advanced level in both extended and ordinary Diplomas.

Standard Grades

These have been the main qualifications taken by secondary school pupils in Scotland, usually as two-year courses between the ages of 14 and 16, with exams at the end of the second year.

They are offered at three levels of study to cover a range of abilities: Foundation (Grades 5 and 6), General (Grades 3 and 4) and Credit (Grades 1 and 2). You need Credits to continue into further education.

Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2

Replacements for Standard Grades under Scotland's National Qualifications framework.

Intermediate 1 is roughly equivalent to Standard Grade - General and is graded A, B, C or D. Intermediate 2 is roughly equivalent to Standard Grade - Credit, and is graded A, B, C or D.

They usually consist of three subject-related units assessed by teachers, plus an external assessment involving coursework or an exam.

Highers and Advanced Highers

Scottish school leaving and university entrance qualifications, taken in the fifth and sixth years of secondary schooling.

Graded from A down to D, they usually involve three subject-related units assessed by teachers, plus an external assessment involving coursework or an exam.

Scottish Baccalaureates

The Scottish Government has announced the introduction of a Scottish Science Baccalaureate and a Scottish Language Baccalaureate for pupils in the fifth and sixth years of secondary education. These will be available from August 2009.

The government says the Scottish Bac will be based on a coherent group of subjects at Higher and Advanced Higher level and involve an interdisciplinary project intended to broaden learners' experience.

Welsh Baccalaureate Advanced Diploma

Involves core learning and key skills plus working with others, an individual investigation and other optional qualifications such as two A-levels, NVQ Level 3 or a BTec National Certificate.

The Welsh Bac was first awarded in 2004 and, four years later, had 1,857 entries, of whom 89% completed the programme.

English Baccalaureate

Developed by the AQA exam board for teaching from September 2008 in about 100 schools and colleges. The English Bac will be taken on top of three A-levels and include extended essay, 100 hours of personal development activity and an AS-level in critical thinking, citizenship or general studies.

International Baccalaureate

Taken usually in the sixth form years or S5/S6 in Scotland and suitable for university entry, the IB involves six main subjects chosen from literature, a second language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer sciences and the arts.

There are also three compulsory sections: a 4,000-word essay on a topic of the student's interest, theory of knowledge, and creativity, action, service.

The IB is offered by some state and independent schools in the UK instead of A-levels as a broader option.


Vocational qualifications at different levels offered by the exam board Edexcel. Lower level BTecs are increasingly offered in schools as well as colleges.

BTec First Certificates and Diplomas are equivalent to two or four higher grade GCSEs, while BTec National Certificates and Diplomas are equivalent to two and four A-levels.


Recently accredited and available for teaching from September 2008, the Pre-U has been developed by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) as a university entry qualification likened to a more "traditional A-level".

Students aiming for the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma study at least three principal subjects from a choice of 26, complete an independent research report and a "global perspectives" portfolio. It does not have a modular structure and emphasises "digging deeper" into a subject - with exams at the end of two years of study.

And ...

There are many other qualifications, such as the Diploma in Digital Applications (Dida) taken in many schools in place of an information technology GCSE, which counts as equivalent to four GCSEs in the school league tables in England.

A complete list of qualifications accredited by the regulators in England (Ofqual), Wales (DCells) and Northern Ireland (Ccea) is available at the so-called National Database of Accreditation Qualifications.

Scotland's qualifications are listed separately at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

But ...


The exam-based International GCSEs were designed for overseas centres where coursework could not be externally checked. Now they are being taken up increasingly by schools in the independent sector in England, which tend to regard them as more stretching.

State schools are not able to enter their pupils for IGCSEs as they receive funding only for approved exams - and these have not been accredited by the regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which says they do not assess the content of the national curriculum.

IGCSEs are not taken into account in the school league tables.

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