As opposed to the standard route of a single-honours course at a university straight from college, many people have alternative educational experiences, either through choice or circumstance. This blog explores why being an interesting candidate with your own story is so important.

For most of us, investing in education is as much about satisfying our thirst for learning as it is about getting good grades and a good job.

For a long time, the pathway from school to university to a career was prescribed. You completed GCSEs, followed by a slew of A levels, applied to a shortlist of favoured universities and degree courses, got accepted, got your head down for the duration of the degree and came out the other side with a world-class degree under your cap and mortarboard.

Entrenched in tradition, when other styles of courses started to come along, such as ACCESS for those who had been out of education for more than three years, to night schools, distance learning and online courses, there was an elitist attitude that was hard to shake.

This came down to value, and how much commentators ascribe to your educational journey. Was studying three A-levels better than an ACCESS course? Do online courses have the same value and prowess as a course taught in the traditional classroom?

From a modern standpoint, it is hard to imagine why we didn’t value alternative pathways to qualifications. Thankfully, those that show contempt for educational prowess that only took the traditional route are now few in number. For those that did take an alternative route to qualifications, employers are now realising that they bring many qualities to a role.

Achievements, Not Just Qualifications

Employers no longer just want a list of qualifications on a CV – did they ever really want that? – they want to see achievements, as much as they want to understand your story. Because, behind every qualification and course listed on your CV, there is a story – your story. And you need to tell it.

So, what are employers really looking for when we say achievements, not just qualifications?


Life happens, the good, the bad and the ugly. From personal hardships to financial issues, there are many reasons why students choose or ‘have to’ take an alternative educational path.

And this is not a bad thing. In fact, it shows initiative and ability to adapt to what life throws your way. As much as we try and engineer our lives for the greater good, stuff happens. From a death in the family to gowing up in care, there are many reasons why some students have no control over the hand that life deals them.

Rather than remaining trapped, you decided to make changes, and this takes courage and determination, as well as a super-dose of commitment.

This ability and desire to adapt is something that no employer wants to be without.


When you ‘go it alone’ so to speak, you act on your own best assumptions. But there are times that you need help. And you must find it.

This means asking for help, not just from ‘anybody’, but from people and organisations that offer the advice and support you need. This shows resourcefulness, as well as determination in the pursuit of your wider goals.

Knowing how to research information, who to contact and so on, are all skills that an employer covets and values in their staff. This doesn’t mean that someone who followed the traditional path doesn’t have these skills or abilities, but for someone following a self-determined route to success, this resourcefulness will have been utilised many, many times over the course of their studies.


Employers look for experience and achievements outside of courses and qualifications. And they look for the smaller details, sometimes hidden within someone’s journey.

For example, a detailed CV that shows you studied a degree-equivalent course part-time, whilst working part-time shows an ability to be organised, to commit, to work hard and to face challenges.

Taking a non-traditional route to qualifications? Make sure you keep your CV up-to-date with every course you do, as well as keeping accurate details of any work or volunteering you do. This creates a CV packed full of information that shows potential employers a whole range of skills and abilities.


Some distance learning courses on offer provide a pass or fail mark. But this doesn’t mean it is of less value than a degree marked as meeting the standard for a third, 2:2, 2:1 or a first.

But you need to show this.

For example, the Language and the Law (Forensic Linguistics) level 3 diploma is equivalent to an A-Level standard course for which on successful completion you will receive a pass. But for each unit module you successfully complete, you will receive detailed feedback from your tutor and a % mark for the assignment.

There is nothing wrong with listing these modules and the mark you got for each and flagging these up with a potential employer or calculating the average % mark for the number of assignments you complete.

When you study for qualifications, you need to ‘blow your own trumpet’, as the saying goes, you need to show the success in completing a course, whether it is one that is equivalent to an A level or level 8 course, equivalent to a Doctorate.


When you receive your qualification certificate, it is a cause for celebration and rightly so. Employers want people who are qualified, sometimes with specific skills, such as computer coding and programming or someone who has passed a teaching assistant course with qualifications in working with students who have additional learning needs.

But they want to see that you have done more than just ticked boxes. They want to see that you can engage.

Alternative routes to education and vocational qualifications often involve a significant commitment on your behalf. It means long nights of studying or spending the weekend completing assignments.

But it also shows that you can juggle everything. But matching this important piece of paper is your ability to understand the real world.

If you have been employed, even in an unrelated industry or sector, you show potential employers you have already developed a work ethic. You also show you are capable of working within the culture of an organisation, and that you understand how the real world of work functions. This is known as work experience, something that other students may acquire through volunteering, for example.

As a student who has taken an alternative route, don’t underestimate your experiences of the ebb and flow of life. You will have picked up valuable skills, including transferable and soft skills (e.g. listening and communication), as well as specific ‘hard’ industry-specific skills acquired through various distance learning courses.


Any student will tell you that the key to success is to apply yourself wholeheartedly to the course. But how do you this?

It takes organisation and practical skills – not just understanding what these skills are but applying them.

There is a saying ‘work smarter, not harder’ and for anyone working and studying at the same time, as well as balancing family and social life, this is certainly true. There are many balls to juggle – work, study, family, social to name just a few – and to meet all the demands that these impose on you, you had to be organised.

You also had to prioritise your workload, understanding that sometimes, one had to give way to the other.

You probably also learned how to multi-task, for example writing a comprehensive assignment whilst also washing the laundry.

You also maximised time, such as listening to podcasts as research for your assignment whilst taking the bus to work. Or reading a page or two of your course manual or made notes to formulate a plan for your next assignment during your lunch hour…

… you get the picture! There is are organised and practical, and then there is applying these skills successfully in real life, skills that students of distance learning courses do all the time (but may not realise or place value on them!).


It was a phrase that was often used in job adverts and role specifications for a long time. Effectively, by prescribing that they wanted a self-starter, employers were wanting to attract candidates who could act on their own initiative within the prescribed boundaries of their role.

Being a self-starter, having the confidence to take the initiative is not something that comes naturally to many people. For those students who have studied for qualifications via a non-traditional route, the first step of enrolling on the course was done on your own initiative: no one told you to do it!

In Summary – Your Story is Just as Important and Valuable

Employers do look for qualifications and ‘good ones’ that are valuable and relevant to their business. But they look for more than this. They look for people’s stories and what their experiences will bring to their business.

It might be a company whose work involves little to none of the subjects, but if you’re looking for a job with no formal English and Maths qualifications it can really set you back. So, what is it that employers are looking for when they demand them?

It is a debate that has raged for centuries – what are the right levels of Maths and English to expect in employees?

Education in the UK has not always been available freely or to all. And when it was made available to boys and girls, there were differences in what they were taught. Likewise, there were no expectations for the lower classes to have a high level of education, let alone to read and write or perform a calculation.

Education is now open to everyone in the UK to access as they want, can and need to. There are still debates raging within education from class sizes to schools being ‘exam factories’.

And then, there are employers who tell us that the skills they want and need in employees are not there. They are concerned about lack of basic, fundamental skills, two of which are English and Maths.

But what are we really talking about here? Is it language or literacy? Is it being able to perform specialist equations or apply numeracy across work tasks?

Numeracy or Maths?

Sometimes, when employers and unions talk about employees lacking in mathematical prowess, they are talking about numeracy (or lack of). Is there a difference?

Some people argue that there is: maths, they say, is the study of specialist mathematical concepts whereas numeracy is the ability to grasp mathematical concepts and how they apply in the real world.

For example, if a small tub of margarine weighing 500g is priced at a special deal of £1, which is the better way to buy 1kg of the product? Would it be two 500g tubs or a 1kg tub at £1.98?

Numeracy is about the basic mathematical concepts that we need to be able to understand basic concepts and apply to real life such as managing personal finances, being able to perform simple, yet important arithmetic when at work such as mathematical concepts of averages – median, mean and so on – as well as frequency.

Some employers and unions say that in recent years, school-leavers have lacked these basic numeracy and maths skills that are so vital when trying to get a job.

Literacy or English?

Again, it is easy to become confused especially with the increasing multi-cultural society we live in. We assume that when employers talk about English, they are referring to people having a certain level of English language ability in terms of speech and understanding.

Like numeracy is the application of mathematical concepts, literacy is the everyday application of English language. But literacy is more than just have words or being able to read.

It is about comprehension. That is, the ability to understand the different ‘modes’ of the English language that we will come across.

This is sometimes referred to as information literacy. As an employee, your employer needs you to be able to read, write, spell, listen and speak to a certain standard but that you can also change or modify the way that you do these things to fit appropriately with the circumstances.

For example, you can write an email that is formal, yet friendly. You are able to follow written instructions, as well as converse with customers in a way that is open, friendly and courteous.

Thinking Skills and IT

Caught up in the wider circles of English and Maths, literacy and numeracy are two other skills that employers also want and need in order for their businesses to thrive;

Interested in looking at thinking skills further? Consider theories such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, DeBono’s thinking skills and Lipman’s modes.

The importance of English and Maths

Referred to in schools and colleges as core subjects, maths and English are essential subjects. So, as you deliberate completing a distance learning A Level English Literature  or an online English GCSE course you may be wondering why they are such important subjects.

After all, as an engineer, you may not be expected to write a short story, but you will be expected to write a report, read others and apply mathematical principles. As a retail worker, you will need a high level of numeracy and spoken English too.

They are seen as basic, fundamental skills and subjects on which the other essential skills and abilities are built. It has also been found that;

There are also issues linked to low numeracy levels which can have an impact on the person and this means that in turn, there is an impact on business as well as wider implications for the economy.

For someone with poor numeracy skills…

The emerging picture is clear: the ability to use both Maths and English in an everyday setting is important not just for work, but for the emotional, social and physical well-being of people. Many experts believe this is because people will have a higher level of understanding of the world around them when they have a higher numeracy and literacy rate, and that they can advocate on behalf of themselves better.

In a work environment, it is essential that people understand the world around them and that Maths and English are the building blocks not only for future skills and qualifications, for us to develop as people too.

In Summary

We use maths and English more than we think or realise, from sending text messages to being in charge of the company’s social media platforms. They are subjects that contain basic, underlying principles that play out in the real world all around us.

Ensuring you have GCSE (or equivalent) Maths and English is essential. But you can upskill yourself in these valuable subjects, completing courses such as a distance learning A level English Literature course or a Maths course will highlight that you do have the ability to use language and maths in everyday situations. We offer a variety of online GCSE Courses which you can purchase online. We also can provide you the opportunity to undertake your A levels online.

We’ve come a long way since the introduction of NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) back in the early 1980s. Over the last few years they have evolved into QCF (2008) and more recently, the simplified system of the RQF (2015).

So what are the differences between QCF, RQF and NVQ, and are we really any better off?

What are NVQs?
Otherwise known as National Vocational Qualifications, these are work based awards that test your ability to complete a job to a certain required standard. Recognised across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (SQVs in Scotland), there are 8 levels in total, ranging from level 1 (which focuses on basic work activities) to level 8, where students are expected to be performing at senior management level. These skills are assessed through portfolios (that demonstrate/showcase the work you have done) and observational sessions, where you are watched by an assessor.

What are QCF Qualifications?
The Qualification and Credit Framework (QCF) is based on a system where students earn credits. One credit usually takes around 10 hours to complete. These credits build up to form full qualifications.

There are 3 different qualification types that you can earn whilst completing a QCF course: Award (only 1-12 credits are needed); Certificate (13-36 credits) and Diploma (over 37 credits). Remember that credits are based on a suggested 10 hours of study, as such, to obtain a certificate worth 13 credits, you would be expected to undertake training with a time duration of around 130 hours.

Compared to NVQ courses, a QCF course is generally more flexible and easier to complete – enabling even those in full time work to undertake this qualification, whilst at the same time allowing the unemployed to balance interviews against their studies. Similarly, students can enjoy the benefits of being able to use the same credits across different units.

What are RQF Qualifications?
The RQF (Regulated Qualifications Framework) came into force in 2015, and was designed to offer a simpler system for managing qualifications regulated by Ofqual.
Similar to a library bookcase, The RQF allows you to index qualifications based on their level and size. The higher the qualification, the greater the complexity and difficulty of the skills and knowledge associated with the qualification.

There are 8 levels in total which are supported by 3 entry levels, as not all qualifications can be assigned to a single level.

In terms of ‘size’, this is based on the estimated amount of time (weeks to years) it is believed it will take you to study, complete and be assessed for the qualification.

Unlike previous systems, with the RQF there is no set deadline for completing qualifications. Instead students can finish them at their own pace. At the same time, the framework gives awarding organisations more freedom to review, develop and improve their qualifications as there are none of the rules and structures of the QCF. Instead awarding organisations can put greater focus onto outcomes.

Other perks of the RQF include:

NOTE: Starting from 30th September 2015, all awarding organisations were expected to begin the process of removing QCF from their qualification titles. This should have been completed by the end of 2017.

Still confused? Here’s a brief history of our journey from NVQ to QCF to RQF:

NVQs were made available to standardise training and development. They were also designed by industry specialists to ensure that all aspects of a business operation could be ‘assessed’ which therefore allowed company employees to be certificated against qualifications specific to their industry. The NVQ process was also designed to be portable which would enable an employee to move from one company to another within the same industry.

The QCF introduced a building-block approach to learning that allowed the progression and enhancement of mobility within careers and across industries. With the QCF came prescriptive design rules that aimed to assure consistency, but also resulted in awarding organisations having to redesign their qualifications in order to meet these new rules.

During this year, NVQs were moved from the NQF (National Qualifications Framework) and were instead placed into the QCF. This enabled all qualifications (including vocational and academic) attained across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to hold the same common currency, QCF credits and achievement levels.

The QCF was reviewed and found to hold too much focus on structure and not enough on validity.

On 1st October 2015, the transition from the QCF to the RQF commenced and with it came the opportunity to offer students the chance to study qualifications at their own pace (as qualification size is based purely on an estimated amount of time for completion and not a restricted deadline).

On the 1st January 2018, all QCF qualifications were fully transitioned to the RQF.

Is the RQF the better choice?

Put simply – yes! Not only does the RQF allow awarding organisations to flexibly create, review, refresh or replace existing qualifications (thanks to its descriptive framework) – they are also free of rules and structure, instead placing a greater focus on outcomes, the purpose of the qualification and innovation.

As a footnote, awarding organisations are still offering NVQ and QCF qualifications. The RQF will build up a ‘head of steam’ over the next two years or so, but whatever qualification structure you follow, now or in the future, no one will be able question the validity of an awarding organisation certificate which has been rightly earned in whatever guise it is presented – NVQ, QCF or RQF!

Click the below link to see the RQF qualifications available from NCC Home Learning:

Or you can view all of our online courses to see if we have something that would suit you.

Infographic: The Differences between QCF, RQF and NVQ

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Differences Between QCF, RQF and NVQ