The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) system foresees awarding qualifications on the basis of achievement rather than the years of study completed. And level descriptors play the key role in the assessment of achievements required to be awarded qualification. But in order to answer what level descriptors are and what is their purpose, it is necessary to understand the QCF system.
The QCF that was introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2011 has been developed jointly and is regulated jointly by the Ofqual, DCELLS and CCEA. Just like the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) which has been replaced by the QCF, the latter consists of 9 levels – Entry Level to Level 8. The QCF works by awarding credit points (1 credit points represents roughly 10 hours of learning) and when a certain amount of credit points is gathered, the learner is awarded qualification. For example to gain a certificate, it is necessary to have 13 to 36 credits. But qualifications – awards, certificates and diplomas can be awarded at any difficulty level from Level 1 to 8 and they merely reveal the amount and not the difficulty of the programme completed. To describe the difficulty of the acquired qualification, level descriptors are used.
The main purpose of level descriptors is to allow the learners, awarding organisations, employers and the public to understand the range of knowledge and skills required to complete a particular level, similarly to those that were used in the NQF. Level descriptors indicate the outcome of learning and do not deal with the process of learning. Despite that, they are used as a guideline in the development of units in order to make sure that the learners’ knowledge and skills at completion of a particular level meet the standards of the QCF. The level descriptors thus indicate the learner’s achievement at a particular level. They do not, however, indicate the learner’s performance within the level.
The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) has 12 levels that cover all qualification titles from Access at Level 1 to Doctorate at Level 12. Although it slightly differs from the framework in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the SCQF also uses level descriptors to outline the outcome of learning at different levels.
According to the SCQF, the level descriptors are used to indicate the following five outcomes at particular levels:
- knowledge and understanding in regard to the subject
- practical knowledge and understanding
- cognitive skills such as critical thinking, analysis
- IT, numeracy and communication skills
- autonomy and the ability to work with others
Just like in the QCF, the descriptors in the SCQF allow general comparison between the outcomes of different levels. The descriptors, however, do not reveal precise requirements for individual qualifications.