What are NVQs?

The short answer is that there are no NVQs. But be patient, read on.

‘NVQ’ is shorthand for ‘National Vocational Qualification’. NVQs were – emphasis on were – qualifications you could obtain in a huge number of practical and work-related topics. The focus was on giving you the practical training to do the job you wanted for life, as well as the necessary theoretical knowledge underpinning it.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, they were called National Vocational Qualifications, but in Scotland they were called Scottish Vocational qualifications (SVQs), which, as far as I am aware, were more or less the same, but presumably with some kind of more Scottish bias.

This is what you had to do to get your NVQ qualification. You had to go to college and then you would be shown how to do things, and then you would have to do them yourself, and you would be assessed on your ability and competence. Week by week, the trainer would show you new tasks, and how to do them, and then you would practice doing them as well, until you could do them all competently. Apart from your actual work in the college being assessed as you went along, you would also have to do book learning and sit tests on that. You would probably have to sit a multi-choice exam at the end of the whole course.

You could usually choose to take full-time courses – which you could probably manage to do if you were at school-leaver age – and then everything, including all the book learning, was achieved in the classroom context. But if you had a job already, or you needed to earn a living, you could usually do part-time classes – maybe one or two days a week – and then do a lot of the book learning and practice at home or at weekends.

This was all a great system. I say ‘was’ because NVQs were abolished in 2015. The government just can’t resist meddling.

In its place, a new system was introduced called ‘the Regulated Qualifications Framework’ or ‘RQF’. (Yes, I know, another completely meaningless Whitehall name.)

Still, whatever the new framework or set of initials that civil servants may come up with, everyone else still stubbornly carries on referring to work-based qualifications as ‘NVQs’ and I’m going to do the same.

NVQs are ‘competence-based qualification qualifications’. In other words, you have to actually be able to do something, not just write essays about it.

Just as academic qualifications went up through GCSEs to ‘A’-levels to University Degrees,  NVQs also have their levels of attainment. I’m listing them all. It’s worth noting them, because just as everyone outside Whitehall persists in referring to ‘NVQs’ so everyone also refers to ‘Level 2’ or “Level 3, as if that’s explanation enough about a course. So, here they are:

  • Level 1 – Being able to do a lot of routine work.
  • Level 2 – Being able to so some more complex and non-routine tasks and collaborate with others
  • Level 3 – Being able to do even more complex and non-routine tasks, on your own, and even and take responsibility for others.
  • Level 4 – Being able to do quite technical, or professional work without any supervision and be responsible to organising the operation you are working in
  • Level 5 – Being able to take on more complexity over a wider range of situations, more responsibility and the ability to take on diagnosis, design, planning, execution and evaluation.

To give you some idea of how these Levels equate to other qualifications:

  • an NVQ Level 1, is equivalent to getting 3 to 4 GCSEs, but not particularly good grades.
  • an NVQ Level 2 is about equivalent to getting four or five GCSEs at grades A* to C
  • NVQ Level 3 is like having two A-levels
  • NVQ Level 4 and 5, and you are heading up towards degree level.

The RQF have a whole different numbering system. For example, RQF Level 7 is equivalent to NVQ Level 5. Mercifully, that divergence only appears in the stratosphere of Levels. RQF Levels 1 to 3 are still equivalent to NVQ Levels 1 to 3 respectively – which is what is going to matter to most people.

So, to sum up, it is a case of: ‘The NVQ is dead. Long live, the NVQ!’

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