What are Vocational Qualifications
Vocational qualifications are work-related, competence-based qualifications. They reflect the skills and knowledge needed to do a job effectively, and show that a candidate is competent in the area of work the qualification represents.


Vocational qualificatons are based on national occupational standards. These standards are statements of performance that describe what competent people in a particular occupation are expected to be able to do. They cover all the main aspects of an occupation, including current best practice, the ability to adapt to future requirements and the knowledge and understanding that underpin competent performance.


Within reason, vocational qualifications do not have to be completed in a specified amount of time. They can be taken by full-time employees or by part-time workers and enables them to develop the appropriate skills relevant to the workplace. There are eligibility criteria for funding support although there are no age limits and no special entry requirements.

To see a list of vocational qualifications where some funding support is available follow click here (opens in new window)

How are Vocational Qualifications achieved?

Vocational qualificationss are achieved through assessment and training. Assessment is normally through on-the-job observation and questioning. Candidates produce evidence to prove they have the competence to meet the vocational qualifications standards. Assessors ‘sign-off’ units when the candidates are ready - the assessor tests candidates’ underpinning knowledge, understanding and work-based performance to make sure they can demonstrate competence in the workplace.


When new candidates start a vocational qualification, the assessor will usually help them to:


  • identify what they can do already
  • agree on the standard and level they are aiming for
  • analyse what they need to learn
  • choose and agree on activities that would allow them to learn what they need.

At this point, candidates might take some training options if that seems the best way to learn what they need. Or they might agree with their employer or supervisor to do slightly different work to gain the evidence of competence they need.


Candidates compare their performance with the standards as they learn. They look at what they have achieved, how much they still need to do and how they should go about it, until they are assessed as competent for a unit or a whole vocational qualification. The system is right for candidates who already have skills and want to increase them, but also for those who are starting from the beginning. As the system is so flexible, new ways of learning can be used immediately.


Definition of Vocational Qualification levels

Vocational qualifications are organised into several levels, based on the competences required. The following definitions provide a general guide to the progression from level to level and the relationship between them. Levels 1-3 are those most applicable to learners within the 14-19 phase. Achievement of level 4 within this age group will be rare.


Levels Description

Level 1   Competence that involves the application of knowledge in the performance of a range of varied work activities, most of which are routine and predictable.


Level 2   Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a significant range of varied work activities, performed in a variety of contexts. Some of these activities are complex or non-routine and there is some individual responsibility or autonomy. Collaboration with others, perhaps through membership of a work group or team, is often a requirement.


Level 3   Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of varied work activities performed in a wide variety of contexts, most of which are complex and non-routine. There is considerable responsibility and autonomy and control or guidance of others is often required. 


Level 4/5   Competence that involves the application of knowledge in a broad range of complex, technical or professional work activities performed in a variety of contexts and with a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy. Responsibility for the work of others and the allocation of resources is often present.


Level 6/7   Competence that involves the application of a range of fundamental principles across a wide and often unpredictable variety of contexts. Very substantial personal autonomy and often significant responsibility for the work of others and for the allocation of substantial resources features strongly, as do personal accountabilities for analysis, diagnosis, design, plan