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Like any subject, education has its share of obscure terminology, understood only by insiders. It’s like learning another language, at GCSE, HNC or Adv Dip…
Further education (FE), includes any study after secondary school education that’s not part of a graduate or undergraduate degree.
For many students, it is the stepping stone from school to university, or other higher education (HE) centre. But just as many students studying a further education course will enter employment on completion of their studies.
FE might include studying a range of subjects at A-Level, or individual subjects at different levels of Diploma. In each case the goal is to increase your knowledge and expertise to a defined level, set by examining boards nationally.
Success in FE courses, whether A-Level or Diploma is indicated by grades and each grade is given a score under the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) system. Universities set their entry requirements and make offers to students based on achieving UCAS scores. (See separate page on UCAS points and university entry.)
The greatest difference between A-Level courses and Diplomas is in the number and depth of subjects studied. With A-Levels it is common to study two to four subjects, on a Diploma generally different aspects of one subject are studied.
FE Diploma courses also offer a tiered approach of rising levels of difficulty, beginning at entry level and rising to Level 3 (equivalent in difficulty to studying two A-Level subjects). So you can begin a Diploma course with few or no GCSEs and more gradually work your way up while studying a subject you have a talent for or simply enjoy more.
Another important difference is in the range of Diploma subjects it is possible to study. While A-Levels focus on academic study of subjects that you might already have studied at GCSE – English, Maths, Chemistry, Politics and so forth – Diplomas include subjects that are more closely matched to industries and business – e.g. Media, Performing Arts, Engineering, Animal Care, Computing.
Because Diplomas imply early specialisation in an industry they are referred to as vocational, meaning that it is the subject and career you feel compelled to follow to the exclusion of others. It makes them especially good if you already know what you want to do as a career.
In order to amass sufficient UCAS points for university entry, it is generally necessary to study at least three at A-Level subjects. Whereas a Diploma course can achieve a similar points outcome from one subject, say photography, or fashion, engineering, or law.
The obvious consequence is that studying a single subject tends to set the direction you will follow through higher education – you can’t very well study photography and expect entry to a linguistics degree (although it’s not impossible).
While Diploma study focuses your study in a narrower area it does so in greater depth. That means you are likely to build up more expertise in your subject, which may improve your chances of getting a university place. A photography student with a big portfolio built up over two years of Diploma study is going to look a lot more promising than the average A-Level student whose time has been divided between photography and two or three unrelated subjects.
If you’re thinking of going into employment after further education, either as a trainee, or through an apprenticeship scheme, the difference between Diploma courses and A-Levels in their early specialisation on the subject or industry is a positive advantage.
If you know you want to work behind the scenes in west end theatres, or you definitely aim to make software apps, it can be much more helpful to you to simply study theatre production and lighting or computing and software straight away.
Another advantage of Diploma study for future employment is that the courses are largely designed with industry input. That means the course content is directed toward learning the things employers value, rather than more generic skills learnt at A-Level.
It’s also common in a Diploma course, even if not as part of an apprenticeship, to spend some of the time in work experience in industry or working on industry briefs and live projects for companies – giving you an immediate taste for the work environment you hope to enter.