Qualifications in the UK 1985-1999


Terms, Definitions and Methods Used

(a) General Categories

Using data from the UK Labour Force Survey, we have classified various groups of the UK population according to their highest qualification. The list of tables shows the groups for which we have performed this classification. The definitions of these groups are as follows.

The total population in Table 1 refers to all individuals of working age; that is aged 16-64 for males and 16-59 for females.

Table 2 focuses only on the subgroup of the total population who are active in the labour force. Included are therefore those individuals in employment (employee, self-employed, or on a government employment or training programme) plus those who are unemployed. The labour Force Survey adopts the International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition of unemployment. To be unemployed by this definition, an individual must be out of work, have looked for work in the four weeks prior to the survey date, and be able and willing to start work within two weeks of the survey date. Individuals who are not in work, but do not satisfy the other two criteria, are classified as inactive, and are therefore not included in Table 2. Note that individuals in the category 'unpaid family worker' are treated as being inactive.

Tables 3 and 4 present the highest qualifications of individuals who are employed and unemployed respectively, based on the definitions in the previous paragraph.

Tables 5 and 6 contain information on the subgroups of the total population who fall into particular age bands, namely 19-21 year olds inclusive in Table 5, and 25-28 year olds inclusive in Table 6.


(b) Schooling and Vocational Qualifications

The Labour Force Survey asks respondents to name up to three qualifications that they hold, which are then coded by the interviewer into one of a number of categories. For our purposes, we consider only their highest qualification. In 1985, the first year used in this analysis, there were 15 such categories, plus a 'don't know' and a 'does not apply' category. For consistency reasons, these are therefore the categories used in the tables in all subsequent years. The categories are:

Higher Degrees (category 1) include Masters degrees and Doctorates obtained at universities or polytechnics in the United Kingdom. First Degrees and Other Degrees (categories 2 and 3) will have been obtained through universities, polytechnics or colleges of higher education. From 1993 polytechnics and universities were merged into a single sector of Higher Education. Degrees can also be obtained through distance learning modes, for example through a course of study with the Open University.

HNCs and HNDs [awarded by BTEC](category 4) are higher level, mainly technical, vocational qualifications, obtained after two years of study in an institution of Higher Education or equivalent.

Teaching Secondary and Primary qualifications (categories 5 and 6) includes 'certificates of education' obtained at 'colleges of education' (now no longer awarded). Most recent qualifications are a degree in education (B.Ed.) obtained in a university after 3 or 4 years of study. These qualifications lead to qualified teacher status, at either primary (5-11 years) or secondary (11 upwards) level.

A similar process is occurring in relation to Nursing qualifications (category 7). Many colleges of nursing within hospitals or health trusts/authorities still exist, but there is an increasing number of nursing/health departments within the universities. Like teaching, the profession is moving towards becoming an 'all graduate' occupation. In recent years 'Project 2000' has become a major qualifications route for trainee nurses.

BTEC (National Certificate), ONC (part-time) and OND (full-time) qualifications (category 8) are now largely subsumed within the GNVQ/NVQ/SVQ framework. These awards require at least two years study after GCSE/O-level and can give admission to university courses. They are therefore considered to be broadly equivalent to A levels (see below). City and Guilds qualifications (category 9) can be awarded at a number of different levels: Part III - Advanced Craft (equivalent to NVQ3), Part II - Craft (equivalent to NVQ2/3), Part I (equivalent to NVQ1). There are also lower level City and Guilds awards - these will be classified under 'other professional/vocational qualifications'.

A levels and their equivalents (category 10) remain the 'gold standard' academic qualification for the 16-19-year-old age group, despite recent calls to improve the status of vocational courses. These will normally be taken over two years (full-time) at a sixth form college, school sixth form, a tertiary college or a college of Further Education, and can give entry to Higher Education. Normally two or three A levels are studied (by those with the appropriate entry qualifications, usually five or more GCSEs at grades A-C).

Traditional-style (time-served) Trade Apprenticeships (category 11) are mostly held by older members of the workforce. Few young people take an apprenticeship without also gaining a vocational qualification. All those who have served an apprenticeship and obtained a vocational qualification at C&G Part II or higher are classified at the appropriate level for that qualification. The Trade Apprenticeship category is therefore a residual category of those who have obtained no vocational qualification in addition to the time-served apprenticeship.

O levels and CSEs (categories 12 and 13) have since 1988 been replaced with GCSEs. O-level (Ordinary level) qualifications were designed for more able secondary school students and were necessary for progression into further education (A-level). The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) qualification was intended for students of all abilities in mainstream secondary education, though they were not taken by the most academic students who would have taken only O levels. There was an overlap between these two types of certificate in that a CSE grade 1 result was regarded as equivalent to an O level. The GCSE examination was designed for students of all abilities through the use of either graded papers or differentiated levels of difficulty within papers. In general GCSE grades A-C are seen as O level (or CSE grade 1) equivalents and GCSE grades D and below represent what would have previously been CSE grade 2 and below. In the LFS, the O level category comprises all those holding one or more O-levels, or one or more CSE passes at Grade 1. Since 1988 when the GCSE was introduced, all those holding at least one GCSE at Grades A-C inclusive are included in the O level category.

Since 1986, when the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) was set up, there has been an attempt to rationalise and simplify the vocational qualifications framework. NVQs were introduced from 1988 onwards and were designed to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding required in particular work tasks. They were part of the move towards competence-based education and training (CBET). NVQ courses include workplace placements and practical as well as written assessments. Until 1996, data on NVQ qualifications were collected separately in the LFS and were therefore not included in the tables presented here. However, so that comparisons can be made, NVQ could be allocated to the LFS categories as follows: a level 1 NVQ is considered equivalent to four GCSEs at grades D to G (classification category 13), level 2 is considered equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A-C (category 12 in the LFS), and level 3 is considered equivalent to two A levels (category 10). NVQ level 4 is considered equivalent to a higher education diploma and level 5 applies to degrees and postgraduate degrees (categories 2 and 1 respectively).

GNVQs were designed to develop skills and understanding in broad vocational areas such as Business, Engineering, Health and Social Care. They were introduced in September 1993 after a pilot year, and can be awarded at Foundation level - considered equivalent to four GCSEs at grades D to G (category 13), Intermediate level - considered equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A to C (category 12), and Advanced level - considered equivalent to two A levels and appropriate for entry to Higher Education (category 10).

The Other Professional/Vocational Qualification category (category 14) is used to classify any types of qualifications not mentioned previously. These include the RSA Diploma, the BTEC/SCOTVEC First Diploma, the BTEC General Certificate, YT qualifications, the SCOTVEC National Certificate. This category also includes low-level clerical qualifications, short City and Guilds courses and foreign degrees and diplomas. Eventually it is anticipated that these will be embraced by the GNVQ/NVQ/SVQ framework as it is applied to intermediate/vocational and higher/professional spheres of education and training activity.

Category 15 is No Qualification ie the respondent holds none of the above-mentioned qualifications and categories 16 and 17 are, respectively, NA (not applicable) and DNA (where the respondent has not answered the question in the LFS).

The above descriptions of the various qualification categories hint that the categories used in the LFS have varied over the period in question, and this has indeed been the case. To ensure the presented series are as consistent as possible over the period, it has been necessary to allow for these changes in the LFS in the following ways.

In 1989, the teaching qualifications were further split by creating the category of teacher in further education. Also, a new category, YTS certificate, was added. These changes were dealt with by combining teaching in further education with teaching secondary and by grouping YTS certificate with other professional/vocational qualifications.

Subsequently, in 1993, the 17 categories were expanded to 33. In general, this was just a more detailed breakdown of qualifications previously subsumed into one of the 17 categories. The ranking of the qualifications was also changed, while the City and Guilds category was split into 3 groups, advanced, craft and other, with inevitable disruption of the ordering. The completed apprenticeship category was also moved from immediately above O-level to above City and Guilds craft and RSA diploma. As a large number of those with apprenticeship completed also hold City and Guilds craft qualifications, this move has disrupted the consistency of the categories over time. The 33 categories were:

  1. higher degree
  2. first degree
  3. other degree
  4. diploma in higher education
  5. HNC/HND, BTEC higher etc
  6. teaching - further education
  7. teaching - secondary
  8. teaching - primary
  9. teaching - level not stated
  10. nursing etc
  11. other higher qualifications below degree
  12. RSA Higher diploma
  13. A level or equivalent
  14. RSA Advanced diploma
  15. ONC/OND BTEC national
  16. City and Guilds advanced craft
  17. Scottish CSYS or equivalent (a)
  18. SCE Higher or equivalent (b)
  19. A/S level or equivalent
  20. trade apprenticeship
  21. RSA diploma
  22. City and Guilds craft
  23. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general diploma
  24. O level, GCSE grade A-C or equivalent
  25. CSE below grade 1, GCSE below grade C
  26. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general certificate
  27. YT/YTP certificate
  28. SCOTVEC National certificate
  29. RSA other
  30. City and Guilds other
  31. other qualifications
  32. no qualifications
  33. don't know

(a) Level above Highers - designed to encourage independent study

(b) University entrance qualification - 5 subjects taken in one year

Because of the problems created by the 1993 changes to the ranking and the splitting of the City and Guilds qualifications, we first recombined all the City and Guilds qualifications and located them in the rank position where they had been pre 1993. We also restored the ONC/OND to its original ranking and moved apprenticeship to its pre 1993 position just above O level. We thus ended up with 31 categories:

  1. higher degree
  2. first degree
  3. other degree
  4. diploma in higher education
  5. HNC/HND, BTEC higher etc
  6. teaching - further education
  7. teaching - secondary
  8. teaching - primary
  9. teaching - level not stated
  10. nursing etc
  11. other higher qualifications below degree
  12. ONC/OND BTEC national
  13. RSA Higher diploma
  14. City and Guilds
  15. A level or equivalent
  16. RSA Advanced diploma
  17. Scottish CSYS or equivalent
  18. SCE Higher or equivalent
  19. A/S level or equivalent
  20. RSA diploma
  21. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general diploma
  22. trade apprenticeship
  23. O level, GCSE grade A-C or equivalent
  24. CSE below grade 1, GCSE below grade C
  25. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general certificate
  26. YT/YTP certificate
  27. SCOTVEC National certificate
  28. RSA other
  29. other qualifications
  30. no qualifications
  31. don't know

These 31 categories were then collapsed to make them consistent with the 1985 17 categories (actually only 16, since the does not apply category was no longer used). The classification used is presented in the following table.

LFS 1985 1993
Higher degree 1 1
First degree 2 2
Other degree 3 3
BTEC, HNC, HND 4 4, 5, 11, 13
Teaching secondary 5 6, 7
Teaching primary 6 8, 9
Nursing etc 7 10
BTEC, ONC, OND 8 12, 16
City & Guilds 9 14
A-level and equivalent 10 15, 17, 18, 19
Trade apprenticeship 11 22
O-level and equivalent 12 23
CSE below grade 1 13 24
Other pro/voc qualifications 14 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
No qualifications 15 30
Don't know 16 31
DNA 17 -

In the 1996 Labour Force Survey there was a further change to the qualifications question, principally to accommodate the NVQ/GNVQ vocational qualifications. There were 41 categories available in 1996, as follows:

  1. higher degree
  2. NVQ/SVQ level 5
  3. first degree
  4. other degree
  5. NVQ/SVQ level 4
  6. diploma in higher education
  7. HNC/HND, BTEC higher etc
  8. teaching - further education
  9. teaching - secondary
  10. teaching - primary
  11. teaching - level not stated
  12. nursing etc
  13. RSA Higher diploma
  14. other higher qualifications below degree
  15. NVQ/SVQ level 3
  16. GNVQ advanced
  17. A level or equivalent
  18. RSA Advanced diploma
  19. ONC/OND BTEC national
  20. City and Guilds advanced craft
  21. Scottish CSYS or equivalent
  22. SCE Higher or equivalent
  23. A/S level or equivalent
  24. trade apprenticeship
  25. NVQ/SVQ level 2
  26. GNVQ intermediate
  27. RSA diploma
  28. City and Guilds craft
  29. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general diploma
  30. O level, GCSE grade A-C or equivalent
  31. NVQ/SVQ level 1
  32. GNVQ/GSVQ foundation level
  33. CSE below grade 1, GCSE below grade C
  34. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general certificate
  35. SCOTVEC modules
  36. RSA other
  37. city and Guilds other
  38. YT/YTP certificate
  39. other qualifications
  40. no qualifications
  41. don't know

The above 41 categories were first compressed into 39 by re-merging the City and Guilds qualifications into a single category, then the categories were re-ordered to make them consistent with the 1985 ordering (as was done with the previous, 1993 change). The resulting order for the new categories was:

  1. higher degree
  2. first degree
  3. other degree
  4. NVQ/SVQ level 5
  5. diploma in higher education
  6. HNC/HND, BTEC higher etc
  7. teaching - further education
  8. teaching - secondary
  9. teaching - primary
  10. teaching - level not stated
  11. nursing etc
  12. other higher qualifications below degree
  13. NVQ/SVQ level 4
  14. ONC/OND BTEC national
  15. RSA Higher diploma
  16. City and Guilds
  17. A level or equivalent
  18. GNVQ advanced
  19. NVQ/SVQ level 3
  20. RSA Advanced diploma
  21. Scottish CSYS or equivalent
  22. SCE Higher or equivalent
  23. A/S level or equivalent
  24. RSA diploma
  25. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general diploma
  26. GNVQ intermediate
  27. NVQ/SVQ level 2
  28. trade apprenticeship
  29. O level, GCSE grade A-C or equivalent
  30. CSE below grade 1, GCSE below grade C
  31. BTEC/SCOTVEC first or general certificate
  32. GNVQ/GSVQ foundation level
  33. NVQ/SVQ level 1
  34. YT/YTP certificate
  35. SCOTVEC modules
  36. RSA other
  37. other qualifications
  38. no qualifications
  39. don't know

The second stage was then to collapse these 39 categories into the 17 categories to be found in the 1985 LFS (actually only 16, since there was no longer a 'does not apply' category), so that we have, as far as possible, a consistent series. Our suggested classification is as follows:

LFS 1985 1996
Higher degree 1 1
First degree 2 2
Other degree 3 3, 4
BTEC, HNC, HND 4 5, 6, 12, 13, 15
Teaching secondary 5 7, 8
Teaching primary 6 9, 10
Nursing etc 7 11
BTEC, ONC, OND 8 14, 18, 19, 20
City & Guilds 9 16
A-level and equivalent 10 17, 21, 22, 23
Trade apprenticeship 11 28
O-level and equivalent 12 26, 27, 29
CSE below grade 1 13 30
Other pro/voc qualifications 14 24, 25, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37
No qualifications 15 38
Don't know 16 39
DNA 17 -