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Students' embarking on their career journey – Is Féidir linn

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Steps on learning ladder

Posted by Francis O' Toole on November 18, 2016

Students and parents may have heard phrases such as Level 8 and Level 7, in relation to educational courses after the Leaving Certificate, and may not know what they mean. These are different levels of qualification, and understanding the system is important to the process of applying for, and progressing through, college.


The National Framework of Qualifications was introduced in 2003. It allows students easily compare qualifications across the Irish and international education systems. The framework takes account of the spectrum of qualifications and opportunities for life-long learning.

Understanding this system not only allows students to compare courses, but provides them with a clear path through which their educational journey can progress.

The framework can be viewed as a ladder: students can work their way up this ladder regardless of the step from which they begin.

On the framework, each qualification is placed on a scale from 1 to 10. The level awarded is based on the depth of learning achieved. Therefore, in general terms the higher the number the better the qualification.

In this system, the Junior Certificate is placed at Level 3, while the Leaving Certificate is Level 5 with Leaving Certificate Applied at Level 4.

When students have completed the Leaving Certificate, they may apply for studies from Level 5 to Level 8. This is because Level 9 and 10 are master’s and PhD courses, which require a student to have completed a Level 8 degree to be considered for entry.

Level 5 and Level 8 may be considered gateway qualifications, by which I mean that, without having achieved on a qualification at these levels, it can be very difficult to progress to a higher level.

Level 8 is an honours degree. With this level of qualification, a student can progress to level 9 or 10, a master’s degree or PhD, respectively. One cannot enter a masters or PhD qualification without first achieving an honours degree.

Similarly, when a student achieves a Level 5 qualification they can then progress to a qualification at level 6, 7 or 8.

Many students aspire to achieve a Level 8 qualification. The most direct path to this qualification is by achieving the necessary entry requirements for a course and the minimum points in the Leaving Cert, and progressing through the CAO.

Generally, the higher the level on the framework that a course is placed, the higher the entry requirements and the more points an applicant will be expected to achieve.

For applicants who do not manage to achieve the necessary entry requirements and points for entry to a degree programme, there is an excellent alternative that involves embarking on study at a lower level at a college of further education (FE). For example, a Leaving Cert student without the necessary requirements for engineering, may choose to take a Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course in pre-university engineering instead.

The requirements for entry to pre university engineering are five passes at Leaving Cert.and a particular grade in ordinary level maths (the grade required may differ depending on the college) .

Students who take this option will spend one year studying engineering at an FE college and may then use this qualification to compete for a place on an engineering course at a university or institute of technology. This allows applicants to enter the same degree programme with less points.

This column will focus on entry to, and movement between, the different levels on the framework over the coming weeks.

Aoife Walsh is a guidance counsellor at Malahide Community School, Co Dublin

Q. I wish to apply for mature student nursing in and I don’t see the codes in the CAO handbook. Are they now located somewhere else?

A. In previous years, all nursing and midwifery courses had two different entry codes, one for mature students and one for school-leavers (or anyone under the age of 23 in the year of application).

This year, they have removed the separate codes  and now all students will apply through the same code.

Mature applicants should carefully read page 7 of the CAO handbook. Applicants can request a hard copy from the CAO, alternatively a PDF version can be accessed through

Applications should be with the CAO no later than February 1 and applicants should ensure they complete all sections relevant to mature students.  If applying for TCD,  mature applicants must also complete and submit a separate application form by February


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