Leveling Up: Types of Awards Explained

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When it comes to mapping out your educational journey, things can get confusing. What’s the difference between a Level 5 qualification and a Level 8? Which looks better on a CV, a diploma in this or a cert in that? Well, first let’s start with the basics, every accredited course in the country fits into the…

Irish NFQ Framework

The Irish NFQ was established in 2003. This is a framework through which all learning achievements are measured and compared. Qualifications are organised within the NFQ based on their level of knowledge, skill and competence. There are many different types and sizes of qualifications included in the NFQ; because all qualifications included in the NFQ are quality assured, you can have confidence that they will be recognised at home and abroad.

What do qualification levels mean?

Below is a brief outline of the specified level indicators within the 10-level framework and the criteria of learning outcomes at each:

  • Level 1: Ability to learn basic information and skills, including literacy and numeracy – e. g. , Level 1 Certificate in Communications.
  • Level 2: Systematic learning ability. Basic literacy and numeracy skills. At this level the focus may be on developmental learning – e. g. , Level 2 Certificate in General Learning.
  • Level 3: Basic practical capability and knowledge of theory. Functional skills in numeracy and literacy and abilities leading to employability in low-skilled jobs – e. g. , Level 3 Certificate in Keyboard and Computer Skills.
  • Level 4: Skills associated with first-time entry into different job sectors – e. g. , Level 4 Certificate in Catering Skills or Retail Sales.
  • Level 5: Broad range of skills and some theoretical understanding. Ability to work independently within a context of general direction – e. g. , Level 5 Certificate in Business Studies or Horticulture, or the Leaving Certificate.
  • Level 6: Comprehensive range of skills – whether vocational-specific or requiring detailed theoretical knowledge – e. g. , Level 6 Certificate in Bricklaying or Carpentry or Beauty Therapy. Employment at this level includes jobs in higher craft as well as junior technician and supervisory role.
  • Level 7: Knowledge and understanding of well-established principles in a field of study and the application of those principles in different contexts – e. g. , Ordinary Bachelor Degree such as a B. Eng in Electronic Engineering. Employment at this level includes the upper end of many technical jobs, some restricted professionals and junior management.
  • Level 8: Vast knowledge and understanding of a subject field. Adaptability and ability to cope with change and exercise initiative within a field of study. Innovation is a key feature at this level – e. g. , BA (Hons) in History, BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry, or Higher Diploma in Science in Quality. Employment at this level includes independent knowledge-based professional occupations such as that of teachers, solicitors and managers.
  • Level 9: Application of knowledge, understanding and problem-solving abilities in new or unfamiliar contexts related to a specific field of study. Ability to integrate knowledge, handle complexity and formulate judgements – e. g. , M. Litt by Research, MSc in Applied Mathematics, or a postgraduate diploma in pharmaceutical science. Employment at this level includes senior professional or manager with responsibility for team output.
  • Level 10: Discovery and development of new knowledge and skills, and delivering findings at the frontiers of knowledge and application – e. g. , PhD by Research. Employment at this level includes managerial roles in specialist subject areas, for example psychologists.

Award Types

Within this 10-level framework there are also 4 different levels of award-type: major awards, minor awards, supplemental awards and special purpose awards. These 4 different award-types correspond with the different kinds of certification required within different fields of work and study such as academic, professional, trade, and specific subject certificates necessary to perform a particular job or task. The list below outlines the difference between these four types of award and how they correspond to one another:


This is the principal class of award at any level. It prepares learners for employment, participation in the community or for access to higher levels of education– for example, the Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate, Level  5 Certificate in Childcare, or a Masters Degree.


This award is usually for the partial completion of a major award. It has to be derived from or linked to a major award. Though they are recognised independently of the major awards, they usually facilitate the recognition of part of the learning outcomes of a major award. For example, certificates in Computer Literacy or Communications.


These are awards for learning that is additional to a previous major or special purpose award. They usually involve updating, continuing or developing educational learning with specific regard to occupations. Generally these awards correspond to the same level of award to which they are additional. An example of a supplemental award is a certificate or qualification in Web Design.

Special Purpose

These awards stand alone and have a distinct identity reflecting their clearly defined purpose. They are significantly smaller in volume than a major award. An example of a special-purpose award is the Safe Pass Certificate of Competence in Health and Safety in the Construction Industry.

Major, supplemental and special purpose awards are categorised by 9 fields of learning:

  • Agriculture, Science and Computing
  • Arts, Crafts and Media
  • Business and Administration
  • Construction and Built Environment,
  • Core Skills, Languages and General Studies,
  • Education, Health and Welfare
  • Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Services
  • Tourism, Hospitality and Sports.



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