A levels continue to have the reputation of being the gold standard of academic qualifications at post-16 level in the UK. The achievement of three or four good A level grades remains a passport to universities around the world.
A level qualifications have been in existence in the UK since 1951 but have undergone a series of changes across the years – the most recent being in 2015. For many parents the current A level structure bears no resemblance to the A levels they studied themselves.
A level reform
The main changes are:
- AS Levels have been ‘decoupled’ from A Levels – they no longer count as part of the A level but are stand-alone qualifications
- students are assessed on the entirety of the course at the end of two years
- most assessment is examination based, with a large reduction in the amount of coursework
- there are limited re-take chances
- all awarding bodies have re-written their specifications for each subject they offer.
What this means for your son or daughter
Students will study three or four subjects over two years and be examined at the end of the second year – usually a three-hour exam based on the content of the whole course.
If a sixth form has entered their students for AS exams at the end of the first year, any grade achieved will NOT count towards the overall grade UNLESS the student is NOT taking that subject into the second year. If the student stops studying a subject at the end of the AS year then the grade (and points) will count and be banked towards any subsequent university offers.
Let us say for example, that Amy begins her first year at sixth form studying A levels in sociology, law, history and biology. At the end of the first year she sits an AS exam in each of these subjects and she achieves grade B’s in all four subjects. Each of these grades are worth 16 points towards a university application. Amy decides to drop law at the end of the first year. Therefore she carries 16 points through from the AS in law. She then sits the full A level exams at the end of the second year in the three remaining subjects. She will leave sixth form with three A levels and one AS level (Law).
GCSE entry criteria for A level study
The most common entry criteria for A level study is five GCSEs at grade C / 4 or 5 including English and maths. Some institutions will have additional requirements for certain subjects. To study A level maths, for example, an applicant might need to have achieved at least a grade B/6 in GCSE maths.
Entry criteria, along with detailed information about each subject will be published in the prospectus and on the institution’s website. Further information is usually offered at an open evening and/or through an interview process.
Successful applicants will usually be made a conditional offer based on their predicted GCSE grades, which then converts into a firm place once results are known.
AS or not AS?
Many parents (and students) will ask whether it is worth taking AS exams at the end of the first year. In most cases, it will not be a case of individual choice – it will be a strategic decision made by the sixth form or college. There are arguments both for and against students taking the AS exam – but it does continue to provide teachers, students and parents with a good idea of progress and areas of weakness at the end of year 1. Taking an AS exam also helps teaching staff to calculate predicted grades which are useful for university applications.
Choice of A levels
There are around 80 A level subjects available, with most institutions offering around 20 – 25 of these. Some of these subjects are continuations of subjects already studied at a lower stage in school – such as maths or English literature or biology. Others will be completely new to students, such as law, psychology or philosophy.
An applicant will usually be asked to make an initial choice of subjects at the interview stage, confirming the choice at enrolment (which will be on or around GCSE results day). Most sixth forms and colleges will hold a taster day where applicants have the chance to sample lessons in various subjects to aid their decision-making.
There are a number of different approaches students can take when choosing their A level subjects:
- An applicant might choose three (or four) subjects that they know they are good at, having studied them at GCSE level.
- They might choose subjects they are interested in (which is a big factor in ensuring success in a subject – after all they will be studying these subjects for two years).
- They might choose subjects according to a desired career path or university course. For example, a student wishing to become a doctor will have to study A levels in biology and chemistry. Someone wanting to study French at university will need to choose A level French.
- An applicant might choose his or her subjects through a combination of 1, 2, and 3 above.
It is important to note that not all degree courses require a student to have studied certain subjects at A level. It is, for example, perfectly possible to be offered a place on a sociology degree without having studied A level sociology. Indeed, many law courses prefer their students NOT to have studied A level law before. Of course, if someone wants to train to be a doctor or an engineer or study for a degree in English literature then there will be an expectation that an applicant has studied certain subjects. However, predominantly, it is the transferable skills that A level study teaches a student that are wanted by universities rather than specific subject knowledge.
The difference between GCSE and A level
Many students, and parents, think that if they had experienced any kind of success at GCSE level then the transition to A levels will be painless. In truth, there is an enormous difference between GCSEs and A levels and the move from one to the other represents a very big jump. Top grades at GCSE are no guarantee of success at A level.
A level requires the development of certain academic skills, which are not necessarily needed at GCSE. Rather than just being able to recall facts and information, A level students need to be able to evaluate, analyse and deal critically with this information. They need to apply their knowledge to situations and to the real world. Perhaps the biggest difference is the requirement to learn significant amounts of complex theory.
In terms of assessment, for most subjects, essay answers are required and even when a question needs only a short answer, it will need to be written in continuous prose. For this reason, the ability to produce writing of an excellent standard is imperative to A level success.
There is less coursework with the reformed A levels. Even where a subject involves some coursework, such as geography, there are still three-hour exams requiring essay-style answers.
Even in subjects where ‘there is no right or wrong answer’, a student still needs to be able to write a well-argued, articulate, academic essay to justify his or her answer.
Moreover, A level students are expected to take greater responsibility for their own learning and there will be greater expectations from teachers that students are completing a significant amount of independent learning each week. Whilst A level students usually have more ‘free’ time, as they are not in lessons all day, they would be expected to use this time for study purposes. It therefore requires a great deal of self-discipline and motivation to be successful at A level.
Alternatives to A level
A levels are not the only route to university and higher education. They are also not suited to everyone. It is important that young people are not forced onto A level courses if it doesn’t suit them.
The entry requirement of most university courses is a Level 3 qualification. A levels are only one type of Level 3 course. BTEC extended diplomas, for example, are another Level 3 qualification accepted by most universities. These courses are vocational and coursework based and therefore better suited to students who struggle with exams or essay writing.
Parents should not automatically assume that A levels are the right path for their sons and daughters. Keep an open mind, attend an open day at sixth form or college and look at ALL the courses available.
A parent’s checklist
Does my son or daughter cope OK with exams? If they don’t then perhaps consider an alternative qualification such as a BTEC Level 3
Do they have good essay writing skills? The majority of A level subjects require good writing skills. These skills can be developed during the course but it is worth considering a BTEC Level 3 course if essay writing is not a strength
Are they likely to be committed to a two-year programme? It is possible to study for a one-year BTEC level 2 course rather than making a two-year commitment
Do they have a career goal in mind? Encourage your son or daughter to research the education and training requirements of that career
Should they study three or four subjects? Be sure to take the advice of teachers at college or sixth form. It is often better to focus fully on three subjects rather than take on too much
What subjects have they been successful with at school? Are these offered at A level? Is there a big difference in the subject at different levels? For example, A level maths represents a very big jump from GCSE maths
Is there an open day we can attend? Encourage your son or daughter to attend open days or information evenings at local colleges and sixth forms in order to make an informed choice
Does my son or daughter want to go to university? Remember that A levels are not the only route to university. Have a look at university prospectuses or websites to see what qualifications and subjects they require applicants to have studied for
What other courses are available? See the sections on vocational education and training to gain insight into the wide variety of other courses and programmes available to students at post-16 level