Vocational Qualifications

An Overview of Credits and Levels

David Boulting


  Table showing the levels (from Entry Level up to Level 8) of a range of qualifications including NVQs, GCSEs and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees
  *Entry level is comprised of three sub-levels: Entry 1, Entry 2 and Entry 3

The importance of traditional building skills has been a regular theme in these pages since the directory was first published in 1993. Promoting these skills is essential to maintaining the traditionally constructed buildings which make up around 20 per cent of the UK’s building stock.


The landscape of vocational training in the UK is complex. The table above shows the levels of common qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and illustrates the approximate equivalence of vocational qualifications to GCSEs, A Levels and higher education qualifications. Scotland has a slightly different system with 12 qualification levels, from Access 1 to Doctorate at level 12 (see Definitions of Levels of Study, on the Scottish Government's website for an explanatory table).

While vocational qualifications used to be identified by the designation ‘NVQ’ (or SVQ in Scotland), awarding organisations are no longer required to use it and different awarding organisations have different conventions. For this reason, it is important that prospective students – and arguably specifiers – have a general understanding of what the titles of vocational qualifications mean in terms of both level of difficulty and the duration of learning involved.

Most qualifications are composed of ‘units’ of learning, each with a value in ‘credits’. This system allows more flexible learning because students can build up the credits required to achieve the qualification through a number of routes and at their own pace. One credit usually requires around 10 hours of learning.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the levels are validated by the new Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), which replaced the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) at the end of 2015. At the time of writing, however, most vocational qualifications continue to reflect the QCF requirements which they were designed to meet. As well as the nine levels of attainment shown in the table, QCF qualifications are divided into three types according to duration:

  • Award (1 to 12 credits)
  • Certificate (13 to 36 credits)
  • Diploma (37 credits or more).

As this suggests, an award is usually a short introductory course that gives students a taste of one or two initial units and takes place over a period of days, while a diploma typically takes 6-12 months. The title of a vocational qualification, ‘L3 NVQ Diploma in Heritage Skills’ for example, usually incorporates both the level and the type (award/certificate/ diploma), so it gives an indication of both the level of difficulty and the duration of learning.

The Scottish equivalent of the QCF and its successor the RQF is the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), which uses the same credit-based system in which one credit represents about 10 hours of learning.

If you want to check whether a vocational qualification is officially recognised or what level it is, there are searchable registers on the websites of the main qualifications regulators (the Scottish Qualifications Authority in Scotland and Ofqual for the other home nations).


Vocational training in traditional building skills is largely delivered in the form of traineeships (including various types of apprenticeship), NVQs and their equivalents, on-site training and upskilling programmes. Typically, college or training centre learning is combined with work placements or other practical, on-site components. However, skilled and experienced workers in the construction sector who don’t have formal qualifications can now gain them exclusively on-site through the OSAT initiative (On-Site Assessment and Training).

The heritage sector is poorly served in terms of apprenticeships but there are signs that this may be changing. The government’s Trailblazer initiative allows groups of employers to join together to design apprenticeships that develop the skills they need in their current and future workforce. A heritage crafts trailblazer is currently under development with input from the Heritage Crafts Association, the Crafts Council and others. As we were preparing to go to print, the chancellor also announced a new apprenticeship levy which will raise £3 billion a year and fund three million new apprenticeships.


Details of craft training and building conservation courses can be found in the course listings in chapter 6 of The Building Conservation Directory and regularly updated listings appear on our website. The Further Information section below includes other key sources of information on craft training for the heritage sector.

The website of the National Heritage Training Group includes a very useful training course and provider database which allows prospective students to search for traditional building skills courses throughout the UK by subject, level and region.


Further Information

Construction Industry Training Board www.citb.co.uk

Council on Training in Architectural Conservation www.cotac.org.uk

Heritage Craft Alliance www.heritagecraftalliance.co.uk

National Heritage Training Group www.the-nhtg.org.uk

Understanding Conservation www.understandingconservation.org


The Building Conservation Directory, 2016


DAVID BOULTING PhD is the deputy editor of The Building Conservation Directory and joint editor of Historic Churches. He is a former teacher and university lecturer.

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