GCE Advanced Level (United Kingdom)
The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, or A level, is a secondary school leaving qualification in the United Kingdom, offered as a main qualification in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as an alternative qualification in Scotland, and as an international school qualification worldwide.
A-levels require studying an offered A level subject over a two-year period and sitting for an examination at the end of each year (AS and A2, respectively), proctored by an official assessment body. Most students study three or four A-level subjects simultaneously during Year 12 and Year 13 (ages 16–18), either in a secondary education institution or in a Sixth Form College, as part of their further education.
A-levels are recognised by many universities as the standard for assessing the suitability of applicants for admission in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and many such universities base their conditional admissions offers on a student's predicted A-level grades.
- 1 Curriculum
- 2 Process
- 3 Usage
- 4 Awarding
- 5 Criticism and controversy
- 6 See also
- 7 References
The A-level from 1951 to 2000
Between 1918 and 1951, the main qualification for school leavers was the Higher School Certificate. This qualification required students to study a range of subjects. By 1953, because it had become apparent that some students were failing the qualification because of weakness in a single area, the decision was taken to develop examinations that assessed students in single subjects. Thus was born the A Level (Advanced Level) examinations, which could be taken on a subject-by-subject basis, according to the strengths and interests of the student.
The A Level at first was graded as simply pass or fail (although students were given an indication of their marks, to the nearest 5%) but by 1963 rising numbers of students taking the exam made it clear that there needed to be more differentiation of achievement. Letters were therefore introduced to award specific grades of pass to students. The grades were norm-referenced and awarded as follows:
- A – top 10%
- B – next 15%
- C – next 10%
- D – next 15%
- E – next 20%
- O (Ordinary) Level – next 20%
- Fail – final 10% 
Candidates whose marks fell between the 10th and 30th percentiles were awarded an Ordinary Level pass which indicated a performance equivalent to at least a grade C at GCE Ordinary Level.
The validity of this system was questioned in the 1980s because, rather than reflecting a standard, it was simply maintaining a specific proportion of candidates at each grade. During the 40-year period from 1955 to 1995, the percentage of students staying on at school had gone from 13% to 72%, so using fixed percentages of a cohort to establish a standard was becoming less viable.
In 1987, a new system that fixed specific criteria for grades B and E, and then divided out the other grades according to fixed percentages, was introduced. Rather than awarding an Ordinary Level for the lowest pass, a new "N" (for Nearly passed) was introduced. In 1988, GCSE examinations were also introduced replacing the O levels. Criticisms of A level grading continued, and when Curriculum 2000 was introduced, the decision was made to have specific criteria for each grade, and the 'N' grade was abolished. In 2003, a UK parliamentary enquiry heard that the A level grading at that time was neither norm-referenced nor criterion referenced, but rather shared elements of the two and so should be thought of as 'a soft criterion referencing.'
The evolution of A level from a two-year linear course with an exam at the end, to a modular course took place gradually between the late 80s and 2000. By the year 2000 there was a strong educational reason to standardise the exam and offer greater breadth to students through modules and there was also a pragmatic case based on the inefficiency of linear courses where up to 30% of students were failing to complete or pass.
Following the introduction of Curriculum 2000 in September 2000 (with the first AS-level examinations held in January 2001 and A2 examinations the following year), an A-level now consists of four (or six for natural sciences) modules studied over two years. Normally, two modules are assessed in the first year, and make up a stand-alone qualification called the "AS-level" (or Advanced Subsidiary level, not to be confused with an older AS-level, the Advanced Supplementary level). Another two modules are assessed at the end of the second year, which make up the "A2". A2 modules do not form a qualification in their own right; the satisfactory completion of the AS and A2 modules in the same subject is required to constitute a complete A-level. Modules are assessed by exam papers marked by national organisations and internally assessed coursework.
The introduction of the new GCE Applied A-level suite, taken from the old VCE A-levels, generally has a more vocational twist. For example, the new GCE A-level in Applied Business combines the traditional theory-based subject 'Business Studies' (which can be studied as an A-level itself) and adds a more practical and hands-on approach to it. In this case, for the mandatory modules in the AS year, the candidate is expected to create a simulated Marketing Proposal (module 1) and Recruitment and motivational package (module 2) as opposed to just studying the processes. This essentially asks the candidate to show a more thorough insight by actually applying the theory. Given that many universities have shown a dislike of vocational subjects as opposed to the traditional ones, their reaction to the new applied suite remains to be seen. However, considering the subject is now much broader and more "student-friendly" it is hoped that universities will see that this subject is no less than the traditional Business Studies given that the traditional aspect of the subject is not fully lost. The new GCE Applied A-levels are available in: Art and Design, ICT, Business, Science, and Health and Social care.
A wide variety of subjects are offered at A-level by the 5 exam boards. Although exam boards regularly alter their curricula, this table shows the majority of subjects which are consistently available for study.
|Art and Design|
|Drama (and Theatre Studies)|
|Design & Technology|
|D&T: Food Technology|
|D&T: Product Design|
|Government and Politics|
|Health and Social Care|
|History of Art (and Design)|
The number of A-level exams taken by students can vary. A typical route in the state sector (in which around 90% of students are educated) is to study four subjects at AS level and then drop down to three at A2 level, although some students continue with their fourth subject. Three is usually the minimum number of A-levels required for university entrance, with some universities specifying the need for a fourth AS subject. There is no limit on the number of A-levels one can study (except in Singapore, where students are restricted to 12 "academic units" and private candidates are also limited in their number of subjects), and a number of students take five or more A-levels. It is permissible to take A-levels in languages one already speaks fluently, or courses with overlapping content, even if not always fully recognised by universities. General Studies and Critical Thinking, which require a grasp of basic political ideas and current affairs in order to write essays rather than specific learning, sometimes augment a student's batch of qualifications.
While many universities do not consider an A-level in General Studies to be a stand-alone subject (and thus is not accepted as part of an offer), it may affect the offer which a student receives. For example, a student of Mathematics, Physics and Computing might receive an offer of B-B-C for a Physics degree, whereas one also taking General Studies might receive B-C-C.
Unlike A-level General Studies, Critical Thinking, which aims to improve student's analytical skills, has generally received a more positive reception from universities. Unlike General Studies, it is often given a UCAS Tariff score, and some university admissions tutors see it as an advantage when applying for competitive courses.
The A-level has been criticised for providing less breadth since many A-level students do not generally study more than three subjects in their final year. A major part of this criticism is that, while a three- or four-subject curriculum can be balanced across the spectrum (e.g., students may choose one science subject, a language subject, and a "creative" subject like Music), in many cases students choose three closely linked subjects, for instance, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry or Sociology, Psychology, and Politics. This is in part due to university entrance requirements, which, for degree programs such as medicine, may require three related A-level subjects, but non-traditional combinations are becoming more common ("British Council Australia Education UK"). Thus, while the purpose of Curriculum 2000 was to encourage students to undertake contrasting subjects, to broaden their 'skill-base', there is a tendency to pursue similar disciplines. However, others disagree, arguing that the additional AS-level(s) studied would already have provided more breadth compared with the old system.
Grading and international comparisons
The passing grades for A-levels are A*, A, B, C, D and E. The A* grade was introduced in September 2008 for higher education entry in 2010, and is awarded to candidates who achieve an A in their overall A-level, with a score of at least 90% at A2. There is no A* grade at AS or unit level. In Mathematics and Further Mathematics the A* grade is slightly more complex and can vary with some exam boards.
According to UCAS and HKEAA, the Hong Kong A-level examination has historically been benchmarked against the UK A-levels. In general, a UK A grade is broadly equivalent to a Hong Kong A-C grade. This conclusion is based mainly on the percentage of pupils achieving the respective grades in respective exams. In the UK, on average 25% of participants of each subject achieved an A grade every year, compared to the 25% A-C rate in Hong Kong – A(4%), A-B (10%), A-C (25%). According to the BBC, the percentage of students achieving an A* is about 8–10%, which essentially lies within the A-B range of their Hong Kong counterparts in respective subjects. Comparison between UK A-levels and the Hong Kong A-levels
A-level examinations are administered through a series of examination boards. These are the 5 GCE Examining Groups and Boards. These were originally based on the major UK universities but have over the last 50 years merged into five organisations: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC and CCEA. Additionally, there are two examination boards offering the British A level qualifications internationally: Edexcel and the CIE. OCR and CIE are both branches of the parent organization, Cambridge Assessment. In the UK it is customary for schools to register with multiple examination boards and to "mix and match" A-levels to get a combined curriculum that fits the school profile.
A-levels are part of the Further Education process in the United Kingdom. A-levels can also be studied by students in Years 12 and 13 in a Sixth Form institution, as part of secondary school. This is an integrated part of a Secondary Education institution in many areas of the country, while others have separate Sixth Form Colleges – this is normally done as a direct continuation of the secondary education process and hence most students study for the qualification from ages 16 to 18. Students require at least 5 A*-C GCSE Grades, including English and Mathematics to meet the pre-requisite to start A-levels.
A-levels are offered as an alternate qualification by a small number of educational institutions in Scotland, in place of the standard Scottish Higher, and the Advanced Higher levels of the Scottish Qualifications Certificate. The schools that offer A-levels are mainly private fee-paying schools particularly for students wishing to attend university in England.
Many international schools choose to use the British system for their wide recognition. Furthermore, students may choose to sit the papers of British examination bodies at education centres around the world, such as those belonging to the British Council. According to the British Council, A-levels are similar to the American Advanced Placements which are themselves equivalent to first year courses of America's four-year bachelor degrees.
Because A-level students often apply to universities before they have taken their final exams, British universities (including Scottish universities, which receive many applicants taking A-levels) consider predicted A-level results when deciding whether applicants should be offered places. Unless the admission offer is guaranteed, without regard to actual official marks eventually achieved by the student, these conditional "offers" to students typically become void should the student fail to achieve the marks expected by the university (for example, conditional offer of three A-levels at grades B-B-C). Universities may specify which subjects they wish these grades to be in (for example, conditional offer of grades A-A-B with a grade A in Mathematics). However, universities may be flexible if a student narrowly missed the required grades.
A-level grades are also sometimes converted into numerical scores, notably through the UCAS university admission system. For example, under the UCAS system, an A* grade at A-level is worth 140 points, while an A is worth 120, a B is worth 100, a C is worth 80, a D is 60, and a E is worth 40; so a university may instead demand that an applicant achieve 280 points, instead of the equivalent offer of B-B-C. This allows greater flexibility to students, as 280 points could also, for example, be achieved through the combination A-B-D, which would not have met the requirements of a B-B-C offer because of the D grade.
Depending on the specific offer made, a combination of more than 3 subjects (typically 4 or 5) with lower grades, or points from non-academic input such as higher level music grades or a Key Skills course, may also be accepted by the university. The text of the offer determines whether this flexibility is available – "280 UCAS Points" likely would, while "280 UCAS Points from three A-level subjects" would not.
There are currently two examination boards which provide an international variant of the United Kingdom A level examinations to international students. These are Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and Edexcel. International A-Level is widely available worldwide, with more than 125 countries providing the programme with 60 different choices of subjects.
Unlike the current modular system implemented in the UK, the CIE A-Level, or more commonly known as the Cambridge A level, practises a terminal-examination system. Students are required to sit for two major exams, AS and A2, at the end of each academic year. Each of the major exams carries the weightage of 50 percent to form a complete A-Level. However, Edexcel A level students will be sitting the same paper as the students in UK concurrently.
Additionally, countries outside of the United Kingdom have established academic qualifications with the same or similar name, and with a similar format, to the United Kingdom A levels. However, these qualifications may be distinct in certain ways from those offered in the United Kingdom.
Criticism and controversy
The most common criticism of the A-level system is an accusation of grade inflation. The Press have noted the steady rise in average grades for 29 consecutive years and drawn the conclusion that A-levels are becoming consistently easier. In a 2007 report Robert Coe compared students scores in the ALIS ability test with equivalent grades achieved in A level exams between 1988 and 2006. He found that students of similar ability were achieving on average about 2 grades higher in 2006 than they were in 1988. In the case of maths it was nearer to 3.5 grades higher.
The government and teaching bodies maintain that the improved grades represent higher levels of achievement due to improved and more experienced teaching methods, but some educationalists and journalists argue that the change is due to grade inflation and the examinations getting easier. It has been suggested that government pressure on schools to achieve high examination results has led them to coach students to pass the examination rather than understand the subject. As the cost to an examination board of changing a subject's syllabus is high they are reluctant to do so, which leads to a lengthy period over which exam questions are similar, allowing targeted teaching to anticipate the questions. In 2000 the A-level system was changed to examine students at the end of each of the two years of A-level study, rather than only at the end of the two years. The results of the first year (AS-level) examinations has allowed students to drop subjects they find difficult after one year and to retake examinations to achieve a higher grade. The ability of unlimited resits, with the best mark going through, has improved results. Some believe that students are tending to select "easier" subjects instead of "harder" ones in order to achieve higher grades.
Universities in Britain have complained that the increasing number of A grades awarded makes it hard to distinguish between students at the upper end of the ability spectrum. The C grade was originally intended to represent the average ability, and students typically required 60% or higher across all assessments to attain it; however, the average result is now at the lower end of the B grade. Many universities have introduced their own entrance tests such as the BMAT and LNAT for specific courses or conduct interviews to select applicants. In 2005, the head of admissions at the University of Cambridge outlined changes he believed should be made to the current system, particularly the use of the Advanced Extension Awards, a more challenging qualification based on the more advanced content of the A-level syllabus. More universities have wanted to see applicants' individual module results to see how comfortably they have achieved their result. There are fears that the A-level may not offer an accurate test of ability, nor will it be a good prediction of future academic success.
Concern over A-level grading became national news in September 2002. The Observer ran a story making claims that A level results had been fixed. It was alleged that students had been given lower marks than they deserved in order to fix overall results, making the pass rate seem lower than it really should have been and so disproving that A levels were becoming too easy. This resulted in the Tomlinson Inquiry. As a result, some papers were re-marked but only 1,220 A level and 733 AS-level students saw an improvement to their results.
In response to concerns shown by employers and universities that it is not possible to distinguish between the large number of students achieving A grades, and in order to mirror the current GCSE standards, a debate arose in 2004 as to whether a new, higher "super A" grade (like the A* grade at GCSE) should be attainable. As will be seen in 2010, it was generally agreed that bringing in higher grades would be a much better idea than raising the grade boundaries to keep the standards consistent, and it has been proposed that on top of the A, an A* grade should be attainable at A level in order to stretch the most able students while still allowing others to achieve the grades they deserve. The Advanced Extension Award has been increasingly used to serve this purpose. From A2 exams sat in 2010, the highest A level grade will be A*, requiring an A grade overall and 90% overall average UMS in A2 papers.
The September 2004 reformation of the Mathematics syllabus, following calls that it was too hard, has attracted criticism for allegedly being made easier. In the change, content consisting of three modules (Pure 1–3) were spread to four modules (Core 1–4). It is alleged that this makes the course easier as students do less work for the same qualifications. Further reforms to make the Mathematics syllabus more popular have been met with mixed opinions. Supporters cite it will reverse the downward trend in students taking the subject whilst others are concerned that the subject is being "still incredibly difficult".
Despite ongoing work to improve the image of A-levels in the business community, there are a number of business leaders are beginning to express concern about the suitability of the qualification for school leavers and to urge the adoption of the International Baccalaureate in the UK instead. During 2009 concerns were raised by Sir Mike Rake, Chairman of BT Group, Sir Terry Leahy, Chairman of Tesco and by Sir Christopher Gent, Chairman of GlaxoSmithKline. Some schools have also moved to offering the Cambridge Pre-U as an alternative to A-levels and with higher tariffs.
Burden of assessment
With increased modularisation of subjects, the amount of time that young adults are spending being examined in the UK has risen considerably. It was estimated in a report in 2010 that by the age of 19 children will have spent an entire year of their school education being assessed. As a result of such criticisms about the "burden of assessment", since September 2008 candidates have taken four papers for most A-levels, instead of six. This means that there are two modules for AS and two more for A2 for the majority of A levels. However, this will not be the case for all A levels: Biology, Human Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics, Geology, Music, Welsh and Science will continue with six units, three units for AS and A2 respectively, and 600 UMS for the A level. Mathematics (including Further Mathematics, Additional Further Mathematics, Statistics, and the Use of Mathematics AS), will not change structurally in the 2008 reform; it will stay on 600 UMS (300 UMS for AS), but it will include the new A* grade and the 'Stretch and Challenge' provision. Also, Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Polish, Arabic, Japanese, Modern Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Dutch, Gujarati, Persian, Portuguese, and Turkish will remain at two units, one for AS and one for A2. However they will move to 200 UMS for A level. Chinese will also move to 200 UMS, but instead of two units, it will move to three units: AS will have two units, A2 will have one. It is the first A level to have an odd number of units since Curriculum 2000.
Cambridge University has warned that it is extremely unlikely that it will accept applicants who are taking two or more supposedly 'softer' A level subjects out of 3. It has outlined a list of subjects it considers to be 'unsuitable', which includes Accounting, Design and Technology, Film Studies, Information and Communication Technology, Media Studies, Photography, and Sports studies.
As a result of dislike of the modular system, many schools now offer the alternative International Baccalaureate Diploma qualification. The course offers more subjects, extracurricular activity, a philosophical epistemological component known as "Theory of Knowledge", as well as the requirement of an extended essay on any subject of a candidate's choice. Unlike the current AS/A2 system, the International Baccalaureate is not based on a modular system. The Diploma Programme, administered by the International Baccalaureate, is a recognised pre-university educational programme.
A possible reformation would be something called the post-qualifications applications system (PQA), where applicants apply to university after they receive their results. It has been argued that this would be fairer to applicants, especially those from lower-income families whose results were thought to be under-predicted. However, a more recent UCAS report shows that although the reliability of predicted grades declines in step with family income, this can still lead to an over-prediction effect for lower income groups. Just 45% of predicted grades are accurate – 47% are over-predictions and 9% under-predictions. A recent UCAS consultation rejected the implementation of PQA following opposition from universities, schools and awarding bodies.
Universities in the United Kingdom frequently demand that applicants achieve a minimum set of grades in A-level examinations, or the equivalent in other examination systems, before accepting them. While the UK government originally rejected plans to introduce an English Baccalaureate modelled on the International Baccalaureate, the Welsh Government introduced a Welsh Baccalaureate in Wales, and an English equivalent is being developed.
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