Educational attainment harmonised standard

This standard has been published while under development because we want to understand how well it meets the needs of government departments and other researchers.

By sharing this standard while under development and monitoring its usage and feedback, we hope to understand more about how it performs in action, in surveys and administrative data.

We are keen to hear your feedback and answer any of your questions. Please email us at

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:30 December 2020
Owner:GSS Harmonisation Team
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance

What is harmonisation?

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent and coherent. Harmonised standards set out how to collect and report statistics to ensure comparability across different data collections in the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Harmonisation produces more useful statistics that give users a greater level of understanding.

What do we mean by educational attainment?

Under the topic of education, there are two harmonised standards – educational attainment, and qualifications. Educational attainment is defined as the highest level of education an individual has successfully completed. The highest level of educational attainment successfully completed is usually given by the highest educational qualification (vocational or academic) achieved.

The level of highest qualification attained is the variable of interest to most users when asking about educational attainment. Currently, the harmonised standard for educational attainment outputs whether a respondent’s highest qualification is at:

  • degree level or above
  • another kind of qualification
  • no qualifications

This standard does so by asking three high level questions, aiming to collect highest qualification in an easy way. This is because it is not appropriate in a short survey which needs only a simple classification of educational attainment (and has no interest in qualifications) to ask multiple questions and present all qualifications.

Questions and response options (inputs)

The harmonised questions on this topic are designed to collect basic information, for use in the majority of surveys. They are not designed to replace questions used in specialist surveys where more detailed analysis is required.

The inputs for the simple classificatory variable on educational attainment requires the respondents to select their highest qualification themselves, there is consistency only at the simple level shown in the 3-level classificatory variable on educational attainment.

The question

Question stemResponse optionsGuidance
Do you have any educational qualifications for which you received a certificate?Yes
Do you have any professional, vocational or other work-related qualifications for which you received a certificate?YesAsk if question 1 (Do you have any educational qualifications for which you received a certificate) = No
Was your highest qualification …At degree level or aboveAsk if question 1 (Do you have any educational qualifications for which you received a certificate) = Yes
question 2 (Do you have any professional, vocational or other work-related qualifications for which you received a certificate) = Yes
Or another kind of qualification

Using this standard

Guidance for devolved administrations

As this standard does not ask for specific qualifications, it can be used across the United Kingdom (UK).

Types of data collection this principle is suitable for

This standard has been designed for interviewer led modes.

Using this question in the Welsh language

This harmonised standard was designed in the English language. At present we do not provide a Welsh language translation, as user demand for this standard is UK wide and Welsh language testing has not been completed to ensure a translation is comparable and appropriate. Harmonised standards based on Census research have been tested in the Welsh language, which is why we are able to provide Welsh versions of them. If you are interested in using a Welsh language version of a harmonised standard that has not been translated, please contact us at

Examples of when this standard has been used

Surveys that used this standard

A review in 2019 identified three surveys that use the harmonised principle exactly. These were:

  • Wealth and Assets Survey
  • English Housing Survey
  • Taking Part.

The National Travel Survey and the Continuous Household Survey ask two of the three harmonised questions exactly, but do not use the third question. This could be because more detail is required on highest qualification rather than just if the respondent has a qualification at degree level or above, or another kind of qualification.

Although the harmonised standard includes three questions, many surveys only ask respondents for their highest qualification. This is problematic as it relies on respondents understanding how different qualifications relate to each other and including vocational as well as academic qualifications.  In addition, for surveys which use this method the question stems varies, which could lead to comparability issues since respondents may interpret these questions differently.

Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)

There is a need for a simple classificatory variable for educational attainment. On many current surveys, the variable which serves this purpose asks about years of continuous full-time education. This variable is widely regarded as unsatisfactory, and increasingly so, as more people acquire academic qualifications after a break in their education and as analysis is increasingly required to take vocational qualifications into account.

The level of highest qualification attained is of greatest interest to most users yet owing to the multiplicity of qualifications it is a difficult area in which to achieve simple but pertinent questions and categories. The categories which cognitive testing showed could be collected with adequate reliability and validity for broad classificatory purposes are given as provisional outputs.

In the table [data] represents where data should be inserted.

Degree, or degree equivalent and above[data]
Other qualifications[data]
No qualifications[data]


We aim to harmonise data collection and outputs across the United Kingdom (UK) where this is appropriate, however needs and circumstances sometimes differ between the countries.

We encourage researchers to implement the harmonised standard for collecting educational attainment data.  If researchers implement this question in a UK-wide context they should bear in mind that data collected may not be fully comparable with country-specific official statistics.


We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, please contact us at

See the GSS harmonisation webpage for further information on harmonisation.

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