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BTECs, A-Levels and NVQs - I don’t understand the difference

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Posted by Moulton College

Throwback to our article: college or apprenticeship - how to decide what’s right for you and you’ll see there’s two main routes you can take after your GCSEs. You could study at a vocational college or ‘academic’ college, or complete an apprenticeship. The pathway you decide will determine the qualifications you’ll receive.

The following article aims to break down the differences between the qualifications so you feel confident you’re making the right choice. Without further ado:

‘Academic’ options

A - Levels

What are they?

Typically offered at ‘academic’ colleges, A-Levels (Advanced Levels) form part of a two year study programme and are graded A*-E.

What can I study?

Subjects can include art, maths, english, the sciences, humanities, sport.

How will I be assessed?

Primarily via exams taken at the end of your second year.

AS Levels

What are they?

In your first year of A-Levels, you’ll study four subjects at AS Level. On completion of your first year you’ll drop one of the AS Level subjects, of which you’ll receive a qualification for. You’ll then progress to complete your three remaining A-Levels at college in year 13.

How will I be assessed?

Assessment could take place through exams or coursework.

However, recent changes mean that your AS Level mark (for the subjects you continue on to A-Level) will not be counted towards your final A-Level grade.

What is the point?

Understandably this may make you wonder what the point of AS Levels actually is. Ultimately they still provide you with a foundation of knowledge in your subject, and recent studies have shown assessment at AS Level can actually help to increase your A-Level grade. Read more about the A-Level reforms and how they might affect you

There’s also other subject based qualifications including the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the relatively new type of qualification, Cambridge Pre-U; for students considering university.

Vocational options


What are they?

Offered at vocational colleges, BTECs, awarded by the Business and Technology Education Council are a technical qualification, and are available from Levels 1-7.

  • BTECs at Level 1 and Level 2 equate to GCSEs.
  • BTECs at Level 3 equate to A-Levels.
  • BTECs at Levels 4-7 equate to degree level.

How will I be assessed?

Due to the vocational nature of these courses, assessment often takes place within a practical environment, and can include written assignments, projects, coursework and occasionally exams.


What are they?

If you decide to complete an apprenticeship, it’s highly likely that you’ll be working towards a NVQ (National Vocational Qualification). This is a work based qualification which is awarded following successful demonstration that you have the practical skills required to work in your desired field.

Just like BTECs, NVQs can be compared with GCSEs and A-Levels as follows:

  • NVQ Level 1 equivalent – 3-4 GCSE grades 1 - 3 (D-G)
  • NVQ Level 2 equivalent – 4-5 GCSE grades 4 - 9 (A*-C)
  • NVQ Level 3 equivalent – 2 A Levels
  • NVQ Level 4 equivalent – Higher Education Certificate/BTEC
  • NVQ Level 5 equivalent – Higher Education Diploma/Foundation Degree

How will I be assessed?

You’ll need to produce a portfolio of work to showcase your achievements throughout your job, and you’ll be observed by your employer as part of your assessment.

TechBacs and Cambridge Technicals are alternative vocational options. The former is a relatively new work related programme, encouraging the development of technical and professional skills through employer links. The latter is a vocational qualification offered by OCR.


With so many acronyms flying around as you research your options following GCSEs, it can feel very confusing. Hopefully this article helps to clarify the differences between the qualifications. If, however you still feel unsure - don’t worry. You can check out our blog listing to see if there’s any other articles that might help or give us a call on 01604 491131. Our friendly Student Services team will be more than happy to help.

Explore our range of vocational courses