PEARL - Part time Education for Adults Returning to Learn - Levels of Study Skip to content

Learning is for everyone and continues throughout life. Doing some learning does not necessarily involve a formal classroom setting or institution. There are many informal learning options, including learning related to your own particular interests, and community-based activities (such as discussions, talks and presentations, information, advice and guidance). There are also a lot of self-study options, especially using the internet.

In the UK qualifications are organised according to different ‘Levels’ from 0 upwards. See below for a review of the different educational levels, and use the links to get information on different types of qualifications. Higher education qualifications start at Level 4 (the higher the level the more advanced the qualification).

You can find out what level your qualifications are here . Also use this link to search a list of officially recognised qualifications.

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Level Learning type Level Detail Description What’s involved Who are they for Example Qualifications
- Community-based informal and non-formal learning Ranges from beginner and non-accredited courses to advanced. Very varied opportunities are available, most do not need any previous knowledge or qualifications to join. Learning is usually facilitated by a tutor or using materials and often you will be learning within a group of other adults to share your ideas and experiences. People who feel more comfortable learning in an informal environment and, those who are looking for new experiences to improve their knowledge and skills. Community learning,
Family Learning
- Open access / online learning / free courses Courses are at many different levels including for personal and professional development. Open University OpenLearn free courses are at 3 levels: Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced Open access materials are very varied and are a way of joining in a learning community. They give you the chance to access materials and take courses from institutions all over the world, no matter where you are. You access the materials online and can study from a few hours to a few weeks. Good for people who want to use a digital learning platform, learn something new flexibly. SPN free badged courses , online courses, free online courses
Badged Open Courses (BOCs),
Open Educational resources (OER),
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
- Leisure courses Non-accredited Leisure courses are mainly for fun and with no formal entry requirements. There will be a focus on enjoyment, building confidence, and studying in a group of like-minded people. People who want to get back into learning, learn something new for fun or start a new hobby. Adult education (short courses),
Community learning,
Specialist day and residential leisure courses and breaks,
Leisure courses,
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),
Family Literacy, Language and Numeracy (FLLN),
Badged Open Courses (BOCs),
Open Educational resources (OER)
- Credit based courses Modules in the Qualification and Credit Framework Good for people who want to learn at their own pace, whilst getting small steps of learning recognised and working towards a qualification ‘bit by bit’. You will study in short modules, which allow you to build up to a full qualification by combining short Units of study. To recognise small steps of learning and enable you to build up your learning at your own pace and put them towards a full qualification. This allows you to keep track of your achievements so you don’t have to repeat your learning. People in all levels of jobs who want to progress to the next level. QCF Credits,
QCF Courses online,
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),
Volunteer learning,
Adult education,
Distance learning,
Learning at work
0 Entry Level Level 0 Entry Level courses are good for people with no qualifications, or who need support to progress their learning. These can help you to improve on your reading, writing and IT skills. On Entry Level courses you will develop skills to carry out simple tasks and activities, making use of skills, knowledge and understanding, often in contexts with which you are already familiar. You may see the term ‘Introductory’ in the course title. People in jobs that involve doing basic tasks under supervision. Functional Skills Qualifications (English, maths and ICT),
BBC Skillswise,
Skills for Life,
European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL),
CLAiT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology),
Online course Skills for Life and functional skills courses,
Family Learning programmes,
Family Learning online
0+ Learning through volunteering/community work Level 0 upwards You give your time to help deliver a service or project usually in a community setting. You gain valuable experiences, and may take part in training sessions, which helps to develop your specific skills relevant to the role and general skills (such as communication, team working, problem-solving, leadership, time management). Depends on the specific opportunity and the learning can be through the experience gained, as well as through training associated with being a volunteer. Those who want to choose their own projects that are important and which have opportunities to develop skills. ASDAN Community Volunteering Qualifications,
NCFE Award in Volunteering Gateway Award in Volunteering,
SPN Taking Part in the Voluntary Sector
0+ Enterprise education Level 0 upwards Learning designed to equip you with a set of capabilities which you can apply to starting a small business or pursuing self-employment as you career. These courses usually aim to build knowledge and skills in different areas ranging from understanding of business structures and requirements to skills for success such as problem-solving and management. People who are considering self-employment or a small business (you do not necessarily need to have a specific business idea in mind). SPN Starting your small business
1 General Education Level 1 These courses are for people who are new to a subject. They will improve your basic knowledge. On Level 1 courses you will get an introduction to a subject. You will learn to apply knowledge and skills to complete routine tasks, perhaps in less familiar contexts. People in jobs that involve doing basic tasks under supervision. GCSEs (Grades D – G),
Maths and English GCSEs,
Certificates in Adult Literacy and Numeracy,
ESOL Skills for Life Qualifications,
National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) at Level 1-2
2 General Education Level 2 This is an intermediate level of study and can provide a route into a career, or be a route to further study at more advanced levels. On Level 2 courses (equivalent to GCSEss at A-C grade) you may see the term ‘Intermediate’ in the course title. On these courses you will learn to select and use relevant knowledge and to complete defined tasks and address problems. You will need to take responsibility for completing tasks and exercise some independent judgement. People in a wide range of jobs but who mainly work under supervision. GCSEss (Grades A* – C),
GCSE English and Maths courses,
Online GCSEss,
Intermediate Apprenticeship,
NVQ Level 2,
Technical qualifications at Level 2 (eg. BTEC First Diploma and City & Guilds Level 2)
3 Further/Adult Education Level 3 Level 3 qualifications are Advanced level and a step on from the qualifications gained at school (prior to 6th form). Many different qualifications are at this level including A Levels, BTECs and NVQs. Level 3 (equivalent to A Levels) you will learn to identify and use relevant understanding of methods and skills to complete tasks, and to address more complex problems and become aware of different perspectives or approaches within the topic area. You will take responsibility for initiating and completing tasks and exercise independent judgement. You may use what you know to analyse new information. You may see the term ‘Advanced’ in the course title. People in jobs where they have to work independently, and sometimes have to supervise other people. AS/A Levels, Online A Levels,
Advanced Apprenticeship,
National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) at Level 3,
Technical qualifications at Level 3 (eg. BTEC National Diploma/Extended Certificate;
BTEC Foundation Diploma;
City & Guilds Level 3)
3+ Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Level 3 upwards Learning to help you to get more out of your current job, or to get a new job or career. Varies depending on the purpose of the learning, and provider. Could include learning informally at work, or going on a course. Your employer may support you to undertake CPD. People who need specific competencies to do a job, or to do a job better, as well as people who are progressing in a career. Continuing professional development (CPD)
Professional qualifications from industry chartered bodies
3 Higher Education Entry courses Level 3 These courses provide a stepping-stone into higher education. You will get a taster and preparation for higher education study. People who want a route to higher education who don’t meet the entry requirements e.g. specific grades in 3 or more A Levels Foundation Year (sometimes called 'Year 0'),
Access to HE Diploma ,
The Diploma for Progression
3 OU Access Modules HE Level 0 Ideal preparation for study towards an Open University qualification, particularly for people wanting to build confidence and brush up on their Study Skills One to one tutor support, experience a number of related subjects, embedded Study Skills development Those who want to study with the OU flexibly around job/family commitments, ideal preparation for those who have not studied for a long time or want to experience a different subject. OU Access modules
4 Higher Education
(equivalent to first year at university)
Level 4 Courses at Level 4 are equivalent to the first year university degree level study. For Level 4 courses you become competent and proficient in the subject. You will research independently and critically evaluate new learning. People in specialist or professional jobs who want to develop their practical, theoretical or technological knowledge and understanding. Higher Apprenticeship,
Higher National,
Higher National Certificate (HNC) (Full-time),
Higher National Certificate (HNC) (Part-Time),
Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE),
BTEC Higher Nationals,
Professional qualifications,
NVQ Level 4
5 Higher Education
(equivalent to second year at university)
Level 5 Courses at Level 5 are equivalent to the second year university degree level study. You will use appropriate methods, cognitive and practical skills to explore broadly defined, complex problems within an area or study or work. People in specialist or professional jobs who want to continue to develop their practical, theoretical or technological knowledge and understanding. Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE),
Foundation Degree (full-time),
Foundation Degree (part-time),
Foundation Degree (Distance learning),
Diploma (HND) (Full-time),
Higher National Diploma (HND) (Part-time)
6 Higher Education Undergraduate Qualifications:
BA (Hons) ie, Bachelor of Arts Degree, BSc (Hons) ie, Bachelor of Science Degree
Level 6 Level 6 courses are undergraduate academic degrees awarded by Universities and some Colleges with Taught Degree Awarding Powers You will critically analyse, interpret and evaluate complex information, concepts and ideas. People in specialist or professional jobs gain advanced practical, conceptual or technological knowledge and understanding of a subject. Bachelor Degree,
Bachelor Degree (part-time and distance learning),
Degree Apprenticeship,
Sandwich Degree,
Distance learning degree,
Top up Degree
7 Postgraduate qualifications:
MA ie, Master’s Degree in Arts, and MSc ie, Master’s Degree in Science or equivalent, PGCE, PGDip, PGCert)
Level 7 These are higher-level qualifications awarded by universities which allow more specialisation and independent learning. Some courses are taught whilst others involve undertaking research. You will develop advanced conceptual or technological knowledge and understanding of a subject, including different theoretical and methodological perspectives, or use specialised skills to conceptualise and address complex questions. People who want a higher level qualification, which will be recognised either in a professional or academic role.
8 Doctorate
(eg PhD, DPhil, EdD, DClinPsy)
Level 8 A Doctorate is one of the highest academic university degrees. You can earn a doctorate in almost any subject area. You will develop critically analyse, interpret and evaluate complex information and concepts to produce new knowledge and theories, or solve complex, problems. People who want to work in a specific field at a high level or to teach at the university level in a specific field.

Learning Providers

One way of exploring the different options open to you is to browse the different types of learning providers available in your local area, or across all areas. To give you a feel for the range available some of the main different types of providers are listed here:

Voluntary and community adult education
The Workers Educational Association (WEA) ( ) is the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education with branches across the country.
Many local community associations offer short courses for adults.
Adult education
Courses for adults are offered by a wider range of further education colleges, private sector and other organisations, ranging from beginner courses to more advanced. You can search for courses which meet your interest using national databases such as and
Open Educational resources
The Open University ( ) offers a wide range of open learning, available to everyone.
OpenLearn ( ) is an online portal which gives you access to free learning from The Open University
Distance learning providers
The Open University ( ) is the largest distance learning University in the UK. They offer a large and wide variety from informal free online courses right through to postgraduate qualifications.The National Extension College ( is a not for profit organisation providing distance learning for people of all ages.
Learndirect ( ) brings together a wide range of skills, training and employment services, which are available online or via local centres.
Vocational training providers
Vocational training is provided by a wide range of private providers, colleges, and charities.
A Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) is a type of status given to departments in further education colleges and training companies to show quality of vocational teaching.
Specialist providers
Specialist learning providers have expertise in supporting learners with particular needs, such as learners with disabilities.
Leonard Cheshire Disability ( ) is a major health and welfare charity which offers training to improve skills and support disabled people into employment.
In-work learning
Most colleges and other learning providers are happy to work with employers to support skill development amongst staff, and in many professions there are opportunities to take part in courses managed through the Professional Body of Trade Association.
UnionLearn ( ) is the learning and skills organisation of the TUC, which works to assist unions in the delivery of learning opportunities for their members. Unions, such as UNISON ( ), offer short courses, support and bursaries for members to undertake learning.
Colleges of Further Education
College of Further Education ( ) operate across the UK, catering for millions of students of all ages. They offer learning opportunities ranging from a few days to several years and from beginner to advanced.
The National Careers Service offers a course finder at:
Higher Education sector
There are well over 150 organisations offering higher education degrees including universities, colleges, private organisations and other institutions with HE status. Most full-time and part-time courses have centralised admissions via UCAS
Flexible, part-time and distance HE
The Open University ( ) is the largest UK provider of flexible part-time HE study and supported distance learning including around 120 undergraduate qualifications. Many local universities also offer some degrees part-time and via distance learning.
Work based learning providers
Most colleges of further education and a wide range of private and voluntary sector training providers manage work-based learning programmes for adults and young people. Employers have an increasing role in the design and delivery of schemes. You can search for opportunities using the national database at: