Master's level accreditation guidance

Work in partnership with higher education institutions to support DfE participants in pursuing a Master's degree.

Seeking Master’s level credit points for learning on DfE programmes

The Department for Education (DfE) has previously worked in partnership with higher education institutions (HEIs) to support participants on DfE programmes who are interested in furthering their development by pursuing a Master’s degree. If you are interested in getting CATS points to contribute to a Master’s degree from an HEI, you will need to approach your preferred HEI directly to discuss eligibility and requirements.


This guidance explains what prospective participants need to do to use evidence of learning developed on DfE programmes as credit points to count towards a Master’s degree. It is only possible for HEIs (the majority of which are universities) to offer credit points towards a Master’s degree when DfE programmes or initiatives generate evidence that participants have reached a required standard of leadership development. DfE programmes or initiatives are focused on supporting improvements in the leadership of schools and children’s centres, and HEIs seek to develop students’ understanding of theory, critical analysis and evaluation to meet standards set out by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Accreditation of prior and experiential learning (APEL)

Although terms and preferences may vary at different institutions, there are two main ways in which you can gain credit against a Master’s degree that reflects prior learning or experience:

  • use another accredited award
  • use your experience in work or research (such as work completed as part of a DfE programme or evidence of leading significant school improvement projects)

There are specific expectations of the evidence that is required to demonstrate that Master’s degree-level work has been achieved. This includes an academic writing style that shows an appropriate range of reading of research, which is referenced in your writing and critically discussed, based on a high level of understanding of the area of work. These style expectations are the reason that higher education institutions may require additional work before they can accredit your professional activities.

CATS points

CATS points are used to monitor and measure participants’ progress in modular courses, and facilitate transference between courses and institutions. For example, if you started a degree in Manchester, gained 60 credits at Master’s level, and then moved to a new job in London, your credits could be transferred to a local university where you could then complete your degree. Transfers are affected by regulations – most HEIs only allow up to 60 credits to be transferred from another institution, although this does vary. Master’s awards are generally weighted at 180 credits or CATS points.

Rules of combination

Validation requirements usually ensure that a maximum of 60 credits can be provided by prior and experiential learning, for example, if you have the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), weighted at 60 credits, you couldn’t also use Leading from the Middle at 30 credits (although some universities do allow up to 90 credits). You could, however, ask for accreditation for two programmes, each worth 30 credits, or a combination of a DfE programme and relevant experience that you can demonstrate.

Studying for a Master’s degree if you don’t have an undergraduate degree

If you don’t have an undergraduate degree please discuss your interest in getting a Master’s degree with the HEI(s) at which you wish to study, to establish what evidence they require of your readiness to undertake a Master’s-level degree. Through the launch of the leadership curriculum, DfE has launched three new national qualifications for middle and senior leaders and aspirant heads. This provision is delivered by licensees (groups of serving schools leaders) who have been awarded a license by DfE to deliver:

  • National Professional Qualification for Middle Leaders (NPQML)
  • National Professional Qualification for Senior Leaders (NPQSL)
  • NPQH

Many licensees are working in partnership with HEIs in their region and through these links are able to offer a package for participants wanting to achieve a Master’s level degree. Additional study will be required working alongside completion of either NPQML, NPQSL or NPQH. To explore this offer you will need to contact licensees directly.

Examples of College programmes whereby the learning has contributed to CATS points towards a Master’s-level degree

  • NPQH
  • National Professional Qualification in Integrated Centre Leadership (NPQICL)
  • Leadership Pathways
  • Middle Leadership Development Programme
Published 18 March 2014