United Kingdom

London (picture from Wikemedia)The United Kingdom is made up of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. The education and training system is decentralised, meaning that there are both differences and similitudes in the education and training systems in each country.

In the United Kingdom, vocational training on the job was commonly practised for a long time. Confronted with rapid developments in terms of qualifications and the labour market, the public authorities have now structured the sector and set up a modular system for validating competences. As national vocational qualifications (NVQ) recognise relatively compartmentalised working skills, horizontal mobility options have been set up to enable young people to move from one system to another. Qualifications are awarded by the competent chambers and guilds governing the various trades and crafts.

According to the Department for Education and Employment (DFE), Britain’s main concern is to bring vocational and university diplomas together within a single framework in order to eliminate traditional barriers and allow greater flexibility within the system.

Apprenticeships always include a work contract and, in most cases, a technical and occupational qualification and core, transferable skills such as numeracy, literacy and ICT. Demand for apprenticeships is rising and competition for the best apprenticeship places is increasing. More apprenticeships are also being developed at higher education levelin response to current labour market needs.

The government’s July 2016 Post-16 skills plan proposes to simplify college-based VET in England by creating clear routes to occupations through qualifications developed with input from employers by 2019. The new regulated qualifications framework introduced in 2015 gives awarding organisations increased freedom and flexibility to develop qualifications that meet specific labour market needs.

The Scottish credit and qualifications framework retains its credit and unit-based structure. Colleges in Scotland align their provision to the needs of employers and the Scottish economy through outcome agreements and a broad range of qualifications through their new regional governance structure.

Youth training, further education, and apprenticeship reforms in Northern Ireland aim to raise skill levels of young people and will provide clear pathways from introductory VET to apprenticeships – which will start at upper secondary technician level – and higher education.

The Education system in UK – 2012


The education system in UK (© Onisep / Elise Veteau)




The vocational pathway in United Kingdom


Secondary education

At the end of compulsory schooling at the age of 16, young people can sit examinations leading to the GCSE, level 2 (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The equivalent of the GCSE in Scotland is the Scottish Certificate of Education: Standard Grade.

Following compulsory schooling, pupils have several options:

  • Going to sixth-form college which prepares pupils to take GCE A-levels, level 3 (General Certificate of Education Advanced Level), which then allows them to go on to university.In Scotland, the equivalent level is the Scottish Certificate of Education: Higher Grade.
  • Going on to a further education college to prepare- the Vocational Certificate of Education (VCE), which is at the same level as mainstream A-levels. In Scotland, this pathway corresponds to the GSVQ (General Scottish Vocational Qualifications).– The NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications), or SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualifications).


Higher education

Students who obtain A-levels with good grades (A to C) in 3 subjects, can go on to higher education at university or other higher education establishments. Here, they can prepare:

  • a Foundation Degree (FD) in 1 or 2 years. This degree allows students to take a job as a highly skilled technician or continue their vocational studies.
  • a Certificate in Higher Education, involving a 1-year course or a Diploma in a Higher Education following a 2-year course. These provide vocational qualifications or can act as a springboard to obtaining a university degree.- The HND (Higher National Diploma) is taken either full-time or as a sandwich course usually over a 2-year period. Coursework is closely linked to the needs of the working world and allows students to start their working life or pursue their studies.- Some Bachelor’s Degrees (BA – Bachelor of Arts, BSc – Bachelor of Sciences) studied at university over 3 or 4 years include work placements. This facilitates integration into the professional world and also allows students to continue with a Master’s Degree.- Many university Master’s Degrees are profession-oriented.



There are 2 types of pre-apprenticeships:

  • The Young Apprenticeships programme designed to prepare 16-year-olds to enter an apprenticeship. Pupils are enrolled in school where they study subjects coming under the national curriculum. In parallel, they devote 2 days a week (or equivalent) to working towards a vocational qualification.
  • Increased Flexibility is geared towards 14 to 16 year-olds and aims to improve vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities by fostering partnerships between schools and enterprises.

60 different certifications can be obtained through an apprenticeship lasting from 1 to 3 years. Apprentices receive a wage and most of them have the status of salaried personnel. Generally speaking, they spend one day at school and the rest of the time in the workplace. There is no age limit for being an apprentice.


Key figures

  • Over 85,000 employers offer apprenticeships covering over 200 trades and crafts
  • Based on 2015 data, the employment rate of IVET graduates aged 20 to 34 (79%) is higher than the EU average (77.2%). (CEDEFOP – 2017)
  • The UK Government has made available an Apprenticeship Grant for Employers incentive (AGE 16-24) in England, providing financial assistance for businesses employing less than 1000 people to take on 16-24 year old Apprentices within a formal Apprenticeship programme. (CEDEFOP – 2015)


Update : 18/06/2018

To find out more

Education System in England / in Scotland / in Wales / in Northern Ireland on Eurypedia

EURES (European Job Mobility Portal) : Living and working in United Kingdom


Ministries and public services
Career guidance and vocational qualifications