Qualifications harmonisation guidance

This harmonised standard is under development. We plan to review and update it, as set out in the GSS Harmonisation Workplan.

You can find more information in the ‘GSS Harmonisation Workplan’ section of this page. If you would like to be involved with this work, please contact us at harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk.

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:30 December 2020
Author:Marie John
Approver:Sofi Nickson
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance


What is harmonisation?

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent and coherent.

This guidance is intended to assist statistical producers to improve the consistency of their statistics and accessibility for users. The guidance also helps users compare and combine statistics, when appropriate. It also suggests where to go to find further information.

What is covered in this guidance?

This page provides information on work underway across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) to harmonise measures of qualifications in data collection across government. This guidance addresses the potential issues with collecting qualifications data, as the classification of qualifications has changed over time.

Collecting qualifications in the UK surveys

Collecting qualifications in surveys is challenging because respondents struggle to correctly recall their qualifications, or the qualifications obtained by others in their household (by proxy). Respondents may also find it challenging to map unlisted qualifications to provided categories, for example certificates and diplomas that apply to more than one response category as well as foreign and other qualifications not explicitly listed.

Current options for collecting qualifications

Under the topic of education, there are two ways to collect data for qualifications, these are: educational attainment, and qualifications. Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education that has been reached. In most cases this information is sufficient, so we would endorse using this standard where possible. However, in some instances where users need to know specific qualifications this guidance may be useful in supporting appropriate comparisons.

Qualifications frameworks

The qualifications frameworks in the UK are frameworks that outline and join the levels and credit values of different qualifications. The UK government webpage, nine different qualification levels, explains how different levels relate to qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England and Northern Ireland the current qualifications framework used is Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) [PDF 226KB] replaced the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) (and the NQF – National Qualifications Framework). The Welsh equivalent of RQF framework is Credit and Qualifications Framework (CQFW).

Scotland has a different education system, its own set of school qualifications and a separate and distinct credit and qualifications framework: The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). Our qualification levels table provides more details and comparison between qualification levels on the SCQF and other frameworks.

Correspondence of levels established between national qualifications frameworks

Regulated qualifications framework Credit and qualifications framework for Wales Scottish credit and qualifications framework

Data comparability guidance

When collecting qualifications, it is important to consider the framework under which the qualifications were classified, because the classifications can differ between frameworks. Also, some types of qualification may not be listed in a framework used and therefore the outputs can vary. For example, under the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), depending on the credits taken BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) can be classified as a Diploma, Certificate or Award. See relevant awarding bodies to get more information on individual qualifications, how they compare and where they fit within the qualifications frameworks.

Further information

Labour Market Survey (LMS) – in development

Labour Market Survey (LMS) was established as a survey to collect labour market data. The LMS has a mixed-mode design (online default with face-to-face follow up) and includes education questions. These questions are still in development, but the Research and Design team has already undergone two rounds of cognitive testing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If you would like to use these questions to collect data on qualifications, or for more up to date information please email Research.And.Design@ons.gov.uk.

Administrative data-based qualification statistics

In harmonising statistics it is important to look at administrative data as well as survey data. Administrative data has the potential to provide more accurate information on qualifications achieved by individuals than self-reported data collected by censuses and surveys. That is why the use of administrative data on qualifications has been explored as a replacement for collecting such information in censuses and surveys.

The admin-based qualification statistics, feasibility research: England report outlines research that has been carried out so far. The report compared information on educational qualifications, specifically highest level of qualification in 2011, from administrative data, the 2011 Census and the Annual Population Survey (APS). Educational admin data is largely aligned with the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) [PDF 226kb].

Administrative data feasibility research used a feasibility version of the All Education Dataset for England (AEDE). The dataset was created and supplied by the Department for Education (DfE) to enable the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to investigate the potential of administrative data to provide information on educational qualifications, however access to the data is only given to ONS analysts who meet a set of security standards.

The feasibility AEDE held by the ONS is a longitudinal dataset created from three sources (see source overview for more details) that cover government-funded education from primary to higher education:

  • National Pupil Database (NPD)
  • Individualised Learner Record (ILR)
  • Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)

Further work will focus on expanding the population coverage using available administrative data on qualifications including persons above 25 years of age and incorporating data for Wales. The plan is to ensure that user needs are met and address any differences that exist between qualifications data obtained from censuses, surveys, and administrative sources.

For more up to date information about the administrative data research, please email admin.based.characteristics@ons.gov.uk.

GSS Harmonisation Workplan

In February 2022, the GSS Harmonisation Team published the GSS Harmonisation Workplan. The team are based in the ONS.

The workplan shows that we are working to develop the qualifications standard. We are working with the Social Survey Research and Design Team based in the ONS who are developing new questions to measure qualifications. We plan to publish an update to add to the qualification harmonisation guidance in autumn 2022.

If you would like to be involved with this work, please contact us at harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk.


We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, contact us at GSSHelp@statistics.gov.uk.


Date Changes
9 July 2021

The harmonised standard for qualifications has been removed as the questions were no longer fit for purpose. This has been replaced by guidance explaining comparability of qualifications data and outlining relevant work in this field.

  • If you would like us to get in touch with you then please leave your contact details or email gsshelp@statistics.gov.uk directly.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.