The government set up the NVQ system in the late 1980s in a bid to 'upskill' the country's workforce and replace a chaotic range of occupational qualifications with a consistent and rigorously assessed set of standards. The standards on which NVQs are based are created by national training organisations, employer-led organisations representing an occupational area or industry sector.

The system is co-ordinated and accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. NVQs are flexible; there are no entry requirements, no exams and they can be worked for over several years with virtually no time limit. Made up of units which describe the skills and knowledge needed to do a job well, they are, essentially, a statement of performance.