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GSS > Policy and guidance hub > Education attainment and qualifications

Education attainment and qualifications

The following guidance sets out how to collect and report statistics about education attainment and qualifications to ensure statistics about this topic are as comparable as possible across the Government Statistical Service (GSS).


This section provides guidance on the survey questions to use when collecting information about education.

Do you have any educational qualifications for which you received a certificate?

  1. Yes
  2. No


If Question 1=No


Do you have any professional, vocational or other work-related qualifications for which you received a certificate? 

  1. Yes
  2. No


If Question 1=Yes OR QUESTION 2=Yes


Was your highest qualification …

  1. at degree level or above
  2. or another kind of qualification?


“See ‘Extra Information’ and ‘Annex A’ for information regarding derivation of more detailed level of highest qualification”.


Presentation of outputs

This section provides guidance for outputting the survey questions to use when collecting information about education.

Provisional Output Categories: Educational Attainment

Degree, or Degree equivalent and above XXXX
Other qualifications XXXX
No Qualifications XXXX


Provisional Output Categories: Level of Highest Qualification

Higher degree and postgraduate qualifications xxx
Degree, or degree level equivalent xxx
Degree, or Degree equivalent, and above XXXX
Other Higher Education below degree level xxx
A levels, vocational level 3 and equivalent xxx
‘A’ levels, vocational level 3 and above XXXX
Trade Apprenticeships xxx
GCSE/O level grade A*-C, vocational level 2 & equivalents xxx
Qualifications at level 1 or below xxx
Other qualifications – level unknown xxx
Other qualifications below ‘A’ level, vocational level 3 & level  unknown XXXX
Other Qualifications XXXX
No Qualifications XXXX


There is a need for a simple classificatory variable for educational attainment. On many current surveys, the variable which serves this purpose asks about years of continuous full-time education. This variable is widely regarded as unsatisfactory, and increasingly so, as more people acquire academic qualifications after a break in their education and as analysis is increasingly required to take vocational qualifications into account (see Discussion in Annex A).

The level of highest qualification attained is of greatest interest to most users, yet owing to the multiplicity of qualifications it is a difficult area in which to achieve simple but pertinent questions and categories. The categories which cognitive testing showed could be collected with adequate reliability and validity for broad classificatory purposes are given as provisional outputs.

Unlike the inputs for the simple classificatory variable on educational attainment, inputs needed to produce harmonised outputs on qualifications will be data on all of respondent’s qualifications. This provides the means for consistent decisions, post-interview, on which qualification is the highest. When respondents select their highest qualification themselves, there is consistency only at the simple level shown in the 3-level classificatory variable on educational attainment (see Primary Module 1).

Some GSS surveys which specialise in qualifications data will need more detailed groupings. From Spring 1998, the LFS and General Lifestyle Survey (GLS) formerly GHS, share a harmonised set of questions on qualifications, although they will each also carry their own further questions on the topic; users who are interested in collecting information on qualifications for substantive analysis may wish to look at the questions used in these two surveys and refer to the detailed breakdown which is presented under a harmonised concept for qualifications. The questions are too extensive for presentation here.

The categories proposed are not exactly the same as the levels within the National Framework of Qualifications however the data on all qualifications needed to classify to these targets are too complex for non-specialist surveys.

In 2004, ONS developed a set of simple questions which would measure educational attainment through the highest qualification obtained. Several major government household surveys, including the LFS and GHS, already have a set of questions which collect all qualifications; highest qualification, in a scale of the analyst’s choosing, can then be derived. These surveys have a substantive interest in qualifications. It would not be feasible to ask so many questions and to collect all qualifications on a survey which needs only a simple classification of educational attainment and has no interest in qualifications as such.

The set of questions which ONS developed to meet this need tried to collect the highest qualification directly, without asking for any other qualifications. This approach would only be successful if:

  1. respondents judged their highest qualification according to a common scale which was also the scale required in analysis;
  2. they included vocational as well as academic qualifications; and
  3. they were able to recognise equivalencies between qualifications in a scale which they were shown and any qualifications they held which were not on the prompt card.


The cognitive testing confirmed the findings of previous pilots and of tests for the 2001 Census: that the conditions noted above are not met with adequate reliability or validity to justify their use. Further work might be done to try to refine this approach, but it seems unlikely to be successful without increasing the number of questions unacceptably for simple classificatory purposes.

A different approach might seek to build on the positive findings of the cognitive test to define a variable which would have more useful categories than the current simple measure of educational attainment (years of continuous full-time education), and which could be expected to collect reliable and valid data. The categories of this variable would, the test suggested, have to be very simple. Moreover, cognitive testing can only suggest areas for further investigation, so any new set of questions would need testing cognitively and quantitatively.


The categories which the test suggested could be collected with adequate reliability and validity for broad classificatory purposes were:

  • has degree or degree-level vocational qualification, or above
  • has a qualification below degree level
  • has no educational or vocational qualifications


A degree was the only clearly recognised qualification which also seemed to define a group at the top of everybody’s scales. Other commonly recognised qualifications, like A Level, could not do so because there are many actual and possible equivalents, which respondents found difficult to place, and qualifications of a similar level which different respondents would place above and below the commonly recognised qualification.

We note that qualifications cross-analyses are often presented in terms of these three categories. The General Lifestyle Survey (GLS) – formerly GHS shows that nearly a third of adults say they have no qualifications and just over one in ten adults have a degree or degree-level qualification or higher.

If there is agreement that a variable with the three categories above would be the most useful to collect reliable and valid data in a simple set of questions for classificatory purposes, a suitable question or questions should be developed and tested. The cognitive test showed that there would be some remaining problems to address, such as what counts as a qualification, but it is likely that solutions could be developed.


Composition of the proposed output categories

Higher Education & professional/vocational equivalents

Degree or Degree equivalent, and above

– Higher degree and postgraduate qualifications

– First degree (including B.Ed.)

– Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates (including PGCE)

– Professional qualifications at degree level e.g. graduate member of professional institute, chartered accountant or surveyor

– NVQ or SVQ level 4 or 5

Other Higher Education below degree level

– Diplomas in higher education & other higher education qualifications

– HNC, HND, Higher level BTEC

– Teaching qualifications for schools or further education (below Degree level standard)

– Nursing, or other medical qualifications not covered above (below Degree level standard)

– RSA higher diploma


A levels, vocational level 3 and equivalents

– A level or equivalent

– AS level

– SCE Higher, Scottish Certificate Sixth Year Studies or equivalent

– NVQ or SVQ level 3

– GNVQ Advanced or GSVQ level 3

– OND, ONC, BTEC National, SCOTVEC National Certificate

– City & Guilds advanced craft, Part III (& other names)

– RSA advanced diploma


Trade Apprenticeships

– GCSE/O Level grade A*-C, vocational level 2 and equivalents
– NVQ or SVQ level 2

– GNVQ intermediate or GSVQ level 2

– RSA Diploma

– City & Guilds Craft or Part II (& other names)

– BTEC, SCOTVEC first or general diploma

– O level or GCSE grade A-C, SCE Standard or Ordinary grades 1-3


Qualifications at level 1 and below

– NVQ or SVQ level 1

– GNVQ Foundation level, GSVQ level 1

– GCSE or O level below grade C, SCE Standard or Ordinary below grade 3

– CSE below grade 1

– BTEC, SCOTVEC first or general certificate

– SCOTVEC modules

– RSA Stage I, II, or III

– City and Guilds part 1

– Junior certificate

– (In future: entry level qualifications, as yet undefined)


Other qualifications: level unknown

– Other vocational or professional or foreign qualifications


No qualifications

Note: The above list is not a complete listing of all qualifications. In particular, it does not give all the names which have been used by BTEC or City and Guilds, nor does it give names for vocational qualifications from other awarding bodies besides BTEC, City and Guilds, RSA and SCOTVEC so it is not complete, although it should cover the majority of vocational qualifications awarded.



Educational attainment questions (PDF, 0.06MB)



Qualifications questions (PDF, 0.06MB)