Further education includes any study after secondary education that is not part of higher education: an undergraduate or graduate degree. Courses on offer at further education colleges (or FE college) range from basic English and maths programmes, to GCSEs and A-levels, to Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), and BTECs . Many courses in reading, writing and basic maths are free, and you may not have to pay for tuition if you’re under 24 and studying for your first qualification equivalent to GCSE or A-level.
FE college offers a much wider range of courses than sixth form colleges or schools. Most colleges do offer A-levels, the same as sixth form colleges and schools, but also have a huge number of other qualifications available in different subjects and at different levels. Some specialise in particular industry sectors such as art and design, catering, engineering or finance. Some colleges have links with companies, so that students studying vocational courses can combine classroom learning with valuable work experience.
FE colleges offer vocational subjects related to a broad subject area, such as business, health and social care, as well as apprenticeships and courses that prepare students for higher education, such as Access courses or art foundation/post A-level art courses.
The colleges also offer vocational higher education level courses, such as foundation degrees, Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs).
In terms of the different levels of qualification, further education colleges have a wide range to choose from. Level 1 qualifications are fairly basic, building confidence and providing an introduction to a subject, industry or area of work. They include, for example, NVQ Level 1, BTEC Introductory Certificates and Cambridge Nationals, which are roughly equivalent to GCSEs gained at grades D to G. Cambridge Nationals are available in a range of engaging subjects, providing an excellent start for vocational study and enabling progression to Level 3 vocational qualifications, such as Cambridge Technicals (available at Level 2 and 3) or apprenticeships.
Level 2 qualifications (NVQ level 2 and BTEC Firsts, for example) give a deeper understanding of a subject or area of work and are roughly equivalent to GCSEs at grades A*-C. Many employers like young people to have a Level 2 qualification as a minimum.
Level 3 qualifications include A-levels and AS-levels, NVQ Level 3, BTEC Nationals, Advanced and Progression Diplomas. This level is almost always required for entry to university and many employers will be looking for Level 3 in applicants for more technical or supervisory roles.
Levels 4 through to 8 may also be available in your local college but are classed as ‘higher’ rather than ‘further’ education. They include Foundation degrees, HND/HNC courses, Honours degrees and postgraduate or professional qualifications at a high level.
Not all institutions will offer the same variety of subjects and courses, so if you are interested in attending a further education college it’s very important to check carefully what is available locally.