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All your questions answered

Eight things you should know about A-levels

Although spared the grading overhaul given to the GCSE in recent years, the A-level has seen fairly radical internal and structural changes. Here’s our guide to this key qualification, from the basics through to insider perspectives.

1. What is an A-level?

The A-level, or Advanced Level, is the de facto pre-university qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although it also exists in various forms in many countries around the world. However, unlike the GCSE there is far less conformity between the different forms it takes, and so we will focus mainly on the English version.

2. What’s the difference between linear and modular A-levels?

Within the UK, there are different forms of the A-level – in 2017, England made it a linear course again, with two years of study examined at the end of the second year of sixth form. These reforms were not adopted in Wales and Northern Ireland, where students still sit modular A-levels – assessed via two yearly modules, with exams sat at the end of each one – and take AS-level qualifications at the end of their first year, which count towards their final A-level grade at the end of the second.

3. How are A-levels graded?

The A-level is graded from A* to E, with a U if the paper is deemed to not pass. A* was introduced in 2010 to provide greater differentiation at the top end of grades, and the requirement is usually around 90 per cent, although the exact boundaries are at the exam boards’ discretion.

4. Why did England reform its A-level?

There were two main factors: to combat both grade inflation and the ‘resit culture’ that had become prevalent under the modular system, whereby students could retake AS exams in their second year to try to improve their overall marks. This was accompanied by changes to the marking criteria too, as the shift in focus towards exams at the end of the upper sixth required students to be tested on a far broader range of skills and knowledge. So the new A-level is more rigorous than the modular style, which was the intention – harder exams have helped to tackle grade inflation.

5. How does coursework feature?

The change in style has also reduced the role of coursework – part of a wider trend in education (which has also applied to the GCSE) resulting from a widespread perception that coursework is too easy to manipulate and does not give a fair reflection of the student’s abilities. On average, since 2017 no A-level in England has had more than 20 per cent of its total marks made up of coursework.

6. How do universities use A-level results?

Universities rely on the A-level (or equivalent qualification) to award students places, basing offers upon either a grade or UCAS-point requirement using information from teachers and internal testing data from schools. All post-GCSE qualifications have a points total set by UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), the body that organises and consolidates applications and offers in British universities. These points form an alternative system that universities can use to make offers. For example, a university might ask an applicant for 113 points. An A at A-level is worth 48 points, so if the student gets three As they will have 144 points, meeting their target. In truth, many universities are not that keen on the A-level reforms, as they liked to be able to formulate offers based on AS results. The new linear system means they are making offers to students who have not yet sat any post-GCSE exams, with perhaps more room for schools to engage in over-optimistic speculation when predicting grades.

7. What do teachers think of A-levels?

For teachers, the main concern about the new A-level has been difficulty. There is a sense that the combination of the increased quantity of material being examined and the more advanced techniques and skills being tested has made it too challenging. Students who under the old system would have achieved a low B or C grade might now find themselves out of their depth – particularly worrying as it is now mandatory to stay in education until 18. There is no doubt that these changes have helped those at the top end by addressing grade inflation, but some teachers feel that this has been at the expense of those in the middle. In reality, the reformed A-level has not been in place long enough for us to see its impact, if any, on overall outcomes.

8. How have the changes affected students?

Students have perhaps been the most affected by these changes. It is undeniable that many face a more challenging route to university. But while the removal of the AS has placed the emphasis on final exams, it has also taken a whole exam cycle from the process, freeing up that time for lessons or mocks. Equally, the AS still exists as an intermediate qualification in its own right, and still carries UCAS points, meaning that options remain open for students. And for those who aspire to Oxbridge or a Russell Group university, these changes will potentially thin the field by acting upon grade inflation.

Ten things you should know about GCSEs

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