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Qualifications and exams: a guide for adult learners
A qualification proves that you've gained knowledge and skills in a particular area, and can help open up new options for work or further study. Find out how to choose the right qualifications and where you can get free advice to help you decide what’s right for you.
Why qualifications matter
Some careers need specific qualifications - for example, medicine and law. Even if having a particular qualification isn’t essential for the work you do, it can strengthen your case when you’re applying for a job or a promotion.
But there are other reasons to go for a qualification - for example, you may use it to get on a particular course or apply for membership of a professional body.
Choosing the right qualification for you
Which qualifications are available to adult learners?
As an adult learner, you can choose from a huge range of qualifications. You could go for GCSEs or A levels, or a vocational qualification directly related to your job.
Another option is to choose a qualification that focuses on skills you can use in a range of situations.
A ‘Skills for Life’ qualification could help with your reading, writing, number or computer skills.
Or a ‘Key Skills’ qualification could let you demonstrate essential skills, like communication or problem-solving, at a range of different levels.
Free careers and skills advice
Get free careers and skills advice from Next Step. Help is available online, over the phone or by email - or you can meet an adviser near where you live.
Next Step advisers are professionally qualified and provide individual advice to help you make the right choices about learning and work.
- Next Step: 0800 100 900
Making use of your qualifications
Qualifications for getting into higher education
There are a number of routes into higher education, and you don’t always need traditional qualifications. If you’ve got a particular course in mind, check the entry requirements. Some ask for specific qualifications: others may be willing to take your work experience into account.
If you want to get into higher education as a mature student, one option might be to do an Access to Higher Education course. They’re available at most local colleges, and you can often sign up without formal qualifications.
Qualifications from outside the UK
If you have qualifications awarded in another country, you'll need to find out whether they are recognised in the UK. See the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) website for more on comparing overseas qualifications with those gained in the UK.
Assessment and exams
You don’t always need to take an exam to get a qualification - on lots of courses, you’re assessed in other ways.
For example, you may be asked to produce coursework or a ‘portfolio’ of work. Other qualifications ask you to carry out practical tasks or complete a project.
If you have a disability or learning difficulty
If you have a disability or learning difficulty, your learning provider must make a ‘reasonable adjustment’ so that you are assessed fairly during your course.
The type of help available will depend on which course or qualification you take. For example, if you have a visual impairment, it may be ‘reasonable’ to get help with reading the exam questions. But if the qualification assesses your ability to read, this type of help might not be reasonable, as it could give you an unfair advantage.
Ask your learning provider before you start your course about what ‘reasonable adjustments’ they will be able to make for particular qualifications. If you are at college, you can get advice from your Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO). At university, speak to your disability adviser. You could also contact the awarding body (sometimes known as the ‘exam board’) that runs the exam.
What if my course doesn't lead to a qualification?
Learning is valuable even if it doesn't lead to a qualification, and you may still get a certificate to show that you've completed a course. Practical knowledge, such as being able to speak a second language, can be just as important as an official qualification.