What do those two words ‘or equivalent’ really mean?
Rather than fill each careers article on this website with lengthy and repetitive listings of every possible alternative qualification, we tend to mention the most commonly cited entrance requirements and add ‘or equivalent’. Employers, training providers, professional bodies and higher education institutions always try to be fair and flexible when considering entry qualifications, so it is worth making specific enquiries if you feel uncertain about matching the requirements for entry to a course or career.
The majority of students in the United Kingdom progress from GCSEs (S grades in Scotland) to AS/A level examinations (Higher/Advanced Higher in Scotland), but there are many other qualifications accepted as being of equivalent or similar value. These include the International Baccalaureate (IB), European Baccalaureate (EB), Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification (WBQ or Welsh Bac), Irish Leaving Certificate (ILC), National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ). For certain types of work, moreover, an Apprenticeship might be more appropriate than traditional full-time study. You might also find that an Access course could help you return to higher education opportunities after taking a break from your studies.
Even when we refer to A levels, we do not normally mention Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level qualifications because these usually provide the first half of the eventual A levels awarded. However, any AS subjects which are not converted to full A levels can still be counted for university entrance purposes, and may well be recognised by other opportunity providers.
If you are aiming very high, you might try to achieve an A* at A level. This means that you must score at least 90% in an exam. The grade has been closely associated with admission to Cambridge but this year we have also seen A* offers from Bristol, Imperial, Warwick, Oxford and University College London.
Last year, 89% of Cambridge entrants achieved an A*, whereas just one in 12 of all A grades reaches the required standard.
Some schools and colleges have abandoned A levels in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U, a relatively new qualification devised by Cambridge University and seen as a return to traditional A level standards.
To be eligible for the two-year Pre-U Diploma, you must complete three Principal Subjects and a Global Perspectives and Research (GPR) component, which leads to an independent research report on a topic that you can choose yourself. The Diploma is flexible enough to allow you to import existing A levels.
Another fairly new sixth form qualification is the AQA Bacc, a baccalaureate qualification designed to sit alongside a normal A level programme.
Unlike other baccalaureate qualifications, such as the IB or Welsh Bac, AQA Bacc retains A levels at its heart. You must also be careful not to confuse it with the English Bacc, a new initiative designed to promote a broad range of academic study in England up to the age of 16.
The successful completion of three A levels, in any combination, is key to success in the AQA Bacc, with three additional elements required:
- An Enrichment Programme, recognising your accomplishments away from the classroom, perhaps through the Duke of Edinburgh Award, work-related activities, community involvement or sporting achievement
- An Extended Project, developing your ability to manage tasks using your own initiative and resources
- Broader Study, designed to develop critical thinking/citizenship skills through an AS level examination in General Studies, Critical Thinking or Citizenship.
Another option in England is to take an Advanced Diploma in a subject such as engineering, construction, information technology, creative and media studies, or society, health and development. Diplomas were introduced as a major new development by the previous Labour government, although they face an uncertain future under the current coalition.
Whatever qualifications you offer, you must be aware that any entry levels quoted represent the minimum standard required. They do not guarantee automatic acceptance by employers, training providers, professional bodies or higher education institutions.
Tell me more!
You can find out more about the qualifications mentioned in this feature by exploring some of the following websites:
Department for Education: www.education.gov.uk
Cambridge Pre-U: www.cie.org.uk
AQA Bacc: www.aqa.org.uk/qual/bacc.php
Welsh Bac: www.wjec.co.uk/?level=112
Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment: www.ccea.org.uk
Scottish Qualifications Authority: www.sqa.org.uk
Education in Ireland: www.educationireland.ie