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EACEA National Policies Platform


6. Education and Training

6.4 Validation of non-formal and informal learning

Last update: 27 January 2021
On this page
  1. Arrangements for the validation of non-formal and informal learning
  2. Information and guidance
  3. Quality assurance


Arrangements for the validation of non-formal and informal learning

The general purpose of processes for validating non-formal and informal learning is to widen participation in formal, further and higher education amongst those who lack the relevant formal qualifications, for whatever reason. The recognition arrangements are aimed at ensuring that there are no arbitrary and unnecessary barriers to admission or progression that might disadvantage particular groups, rather than targeting particular groups themselves.

Although there is no national prescribed position on the validation of non-formal and informal learning in Wales, recognition of such learning can take place in different ways.

The Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) is a national qualifications umbrella framework supporting the recognition of qualifications across all levels of the education system. It is jointly managed by the Welsh Government, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and Qualifications Wales, the regulatory body for non-degree qualifications. Learners may apply to further/higher education institutions for recognition of prior learning (RPL) to obtain or access formal qualifications on the CQFW, including higher education (HE) and vocational qualifications.

The CQFW comprises three pillars of learning:

  1. formal regulated learning (general and vocational qualifications), which are found on the Regulated Qualifications Framework pillar
  2. formal regulated learning ,which is found on the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) pillar
  3. lifelong learning – both formal and non-formal learning, which is found on the Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL) pillar.

Within regulated (general and vocational) qualifications

The CQFW allows for regulated qualifications to be obtained, in full or in part, through recognition of prior learning (RPL). However, whilst RPL is allowed in the CQFW, and whilst the Welsh Government and the CQFW Advisory Group recognise the benefits of RPL, there is currently no formal policy in place for RPL.

In the UK Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is mostly used as an underpinning principle by delivery centres, and is not led by Government or by Awarding Bodies/Organisations. It is up to the individual institution how RPL is implemented. CQFW ‘Competent Bodies’ should have established policies and practices in place in relation to RPL - for instance,  it is common in higher education but this is only on a case-by-case basis.

Note: For the purpose of Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL) pillar of the CQFW, the terms recognition of prior learning (RPL), accreditation of prior learning (APL) and accreditation of prior experience (APEL) are used interchangeably.

Credit can be gained for units on the CQFW for non-certificated learning and achievements. Qualifications Wales’ Standard Conditions of Recognition sets out rules for Awarding Organisations. RPL is defined as  identification by an awarding body of any learning undertaken, and/or attainment, by a Learner:(i) prior to that Learner taking a qualification, which the awarding body makes available or proposes to make available and,(ii) which is relevant to the knowledge, skills and understanding which will be assessed as part of that qualification.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are a means of validating workplace learning. They are aimed mainly at people in work or may be taken as part of an apprenticeship.  They provide evidence of professional competence against a nationally recognised occupational standard. NVQs are assessed through portfolios and observations. Candidates must give evidence that they have the competences set out in the NVQ standards. Assessors then test the candidate’s knowledge, understanding and work-based performance to make sure they can demonstrate competence in the workplace.

Within higher education

Although not required by law to do so, all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) design their qualifications in accordance with the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and which forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, the definitive reference point used to assure the quality and standards of UK higher education providers. The FHEQ is based on the premise that qualifications should be awarded for the achievement of outcomes and attainment, rather than years of study.

As autonomous institutions, HEIs have discretion as to whether or not they recognise prior learning for entry to a learning programme. The selection processes and procedures employed by HEIs addressed in Chapter B2: Recruitment, selection and admission to higher education of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, include the recognition of prior learning for the purposes of meeting entry requirements for a programme. The Quality Code does not, however, specify the criteria to be used for selection, but encourages each institution to ensure that its own policies and procedures are transparent, explicit and communicated effectively. 

Many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) give credit for prior study and informal learning acquired through work or other experiences for advanced standing within a learning programme. They must then align their procedures for RPL to Chapter B6:Assessment of students and the recognition of prior learning of the Quality Code. (QAA, 2013)

Credit may also be used to help students transfer to another programme either within the same institution or at a different institution. HEIs may use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), but most use national credit systems which articulate with it.

The European Inventory on Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning report quotes an earlier study which stated that a project on RPL conducted among some Welsh universities identified a need to introduce new assessment mechanisms and found some examples of possible alternative approaches:

  • recognition, and utilisation of work-based documentation, commentary or visual evidence
  • e-portfolios
  • semi-structured interviews
  • video-conferencing.

See also section 4.3.2. Recognition of non-formal and informal learning in The European Higher Education Area in 2015: Bologna Process Implementation Report

Within lifelong learning

The Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL) pillar of the CQFW is intended to recognise non-formal (and formal) learning that takes place outside of higher education and general and vocational education and training.

This pillar recognises non-formal learning provision (rather than validating individual learner outcomes) as a unit on the CQFW. Non-formal learning consists of QALL units delivered by FE/HE institutions, employers, training providers and third sector organisations.

There is no regulatory process in place for non-formal/formal learning within QALL. Providers should undertake to adopt the CQFW high level principles, i.e. level descriptors, credit value, learning time, learning outcomes, recognised standards, title, purpose, assessment. This decentralises the responsibility of recognition and provides greater flexibility and a more responsive approach to engage the more hard to reach learners.  

Only QALL units which comply with the CQFW high level principles and are awarded by a CQFW ‘competent body’, ‘recognised’ within the CQFW. The Welsh Government does not mandate that these units are ‘accredited’ or ‘certificated’ as this may incur a cost to the learner/employer or institution. However, a form of accreditation or certification is usually required as part of the RPL process.   

Note: A competent body is deemed to be any UK regulated awarding body (that is recognised by a UK qualifications regulator) or a further education institution or higher education institution in Wales, which is recognised to credit-rate and award unitised accredited learning programmes.

Informal learning cannot be validated through the CQFW, as by its nature, it does not comply with the high level principles. A review of the impact of the CQFW did not specifically deal with its effect on young people, but found that CQFW’s recognition of non-mainstream provision enabled providers to ‘develop innovative curriculum offers for learners at the margins of formal education and training’(p. 10).

The greater recognition of prior and informal learning through the QALL pillar was:

thought to have a particularly important impact on disadvantaged learner groups with low levels of education, such as the homeless, offenders and adult learners engaged in adult and community learning programmes (p. 55).



The awarding organisation Agored Cymru’s RPL policy states that within its centres, staff with ‘appropriate expertise’ should be available to give advice on the RPL process.

Agored Cymru offers a continuing professional development (CPD) qualification in RPL. The Level 3 Award in Recognising Prior Learning (RPL) is intended for practitioners working at any level in the education and training sector (i.e. general, vocational, higher education and adult education) across the UK. It also offers a Level 4 Certificate in Recognising Prior Learning.

Further information

Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales

For arrangements to recognise the learning outcomes of volunteering, see the article ‘Skills recognition’ in the ‘Voluntary Activities’ chapter.

See the subheading 'Official guidelines on traineeships and apprenticeships' in the article on 'Traineeships and Apprenticeships' for learning outcomes in these areas.

Other good sources of information are two Cedefop publications:

Hawley, J. (2016). European Inventory on Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning 

UK NARIC. (2016). Vocational Education and Training in Europe 

For information on validation of learning outcomes in formal education, see the subheading 'Certification' in the article on 'Assessment in General Upper Secondary Education' and the article 'Assessment in Vocational Upper Secondary Education’ in the Eurydice education system description for Wales.



Information and guidance

The provision of information, advice and guidance in relation to the various methods of validation in place is delivered by the individual learning providers and awarding organisations which offer validation opportunities.

Learning providers and awarding organisations who recognise prior learning have their own policies in place, including for the type of information and guidance they offer.

For higher education, Chapter B2: Recruitment, selection and admission to higher education of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education states:

Recruitment activities undertaken by higher education providers assist prospective students in making informed decisions about higher education. Providers decide what information they will make available and how it can be communicated most effectively to the diverse range of prospective students and their advisers. Such information may include: details of the recognition of prior learning for the purposes of meeting entry requirements..

The chapter on assessment of students and the recognition of prior learning in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education gives, as an indicator of sound practice, that:

Those who might be eligible for the recognition of prior learning are made aware of the opportunities available, and are supported throughout the process of application and assessment for recognition.

Applicants benefit from being engaged in discussion and negotiation about the form(s) of assessment to be used in their case, and from having a shared understanding of the learning that would need to be evidenced as well as the nature of the evidence to be provided

UCAS, the charity which provides information, advice, and applications services, has drawn up structured profiles of some assessed programmes followed by UK students which are not externally accredited to any of the regulatory frameworks. These can be used by higher education providers to inform their admissions decisions.

Quality assurance

Awarding organisations and higher education institutions (HEIs) determine their own quality assurance arrangements for non-formal learning. The national reference point is provided by the Quality Code for Higher Education which is monitored by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).