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Choices at 16

What are vocational qualifications and where do they lead?

Vocational qualifications offer practical learning programmes that relate to specific job roles or job sectors.

There are many different types of vocational qualifications in a wide range of subjects at all levels - from Entry Level right up to Level 8 - you can look at the Careerpilot Qualification Planner to view all qualifications and levels.

Vocational courses are designed to help young people learn in a practical way about a specific job area - helping them to get the skills needed to start a job, progress in a career or go on to higher levels of education.

Some vocational qualifications, such as BTECs and Cambridge Technical Qualifications are offered in schools although a wider range of vocational qualifications is offered by colleges and through apprenticeships.

 If a young person is studying towards a BTEC in a school they might also do this alongside one or two A levels.

Vocational qualifications can lead to employment and also to higher education. Some Level 3 vocational qualifications, such as BTECs earn UCAS points towards higher education, in the same way as those given for A Levels.

Types of Vocational qualifications

  • Vocational subjects that are related to a broad employment area such as business, engineering, IT, health and social care
  • Vocational courses that lead to specific jobs such as hairdressing, accounting, professional cookery, plumbing
  • Apprenticeships where you are employed and trained for a specific job role - getting paid as you learn and gain in-work qualifications

Vocational Subjects

Vocational subjects are general qualifications that develop practical skills and knowledge related to an employment area. They are offered in both schools and colleges. They include a significant amount of classroom-based activities and assessment is usually by written work in coursework and exams and through practical assessments.  

Vocational Courses

Vocational courses provide training and qualifications related to a specific job, such as being a plumber, hairdresser or a professional cook. These courses are mostly offered at Further Education (FE) Colleges. They are usually very practical and involve learning in real situations, with real customers, such as cutting hair in the college salon that is open to the public, cooking for paying customers in the college restaurant or installing bathrooms in the plumbing workshops.

New T level Qualifications

Over the next few years colleges are phasing in the new technical level (T level) qualifications which are level 3 vocational courses that also include a significant amount of technical knowledge, skills and work experience. These lead on to higher apprenticeships or degree study.


An apprenticeship is a way to learn on the job, building up knowledge and skills, gaining qualifications and earning money at the same time. Apprentices spend most of their time in the workplace gaining job-specific skills, but are also supported by a specialist learning provider to build up their job-specific knowledge and qualifications.

Apprenticeship training can take between one and four years to complete and the length of the apprenticeship will depend on its level, the industry involved and the apprentice’s prior level of relevant skills.

Apprentice applicants must be 16, there are apprenticeships at different levels:

Vocational Qualifications are designed to meet the specific needs of employers and job sectors. This means that young people can develop the skills and knowledge that employers value, enabling them to become effective employees and helping the organisation to succeed. Studying for a vocational qualification can help young people decide whether a particular job or job sector is right for them.

Find out more about apprenticeships

Investigate current apprenticeship vacancies

Where do vocational qualifications lead?

For information about choosing a vocational route to work click here

For information about choosing a vocational route to higher level study click here.

More information

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