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An A-level, short for Advanced Level, is a General Certificate of Education usually taken during Further Education and after GCSEs . It is a non-compulsory qualification taken by students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the Scottish equivalent is the Advanced Higher Grade). They are available in a wide range of subjects. They were introduced in 1951, replacing the previous award, the Higher School Certificate (HSC).


Grades and grading history

A-Levels are graded from A to E, along with a fail grade, U (unclassified). Originally, they only distinguished between a pass and a fail, though a fail was divided into two, one meaning that the student failed at A-level but passed at the O-level equivalent of that subject, and the other meaning that the student had not passed at either A-level or O-level. In 1953, another grade was introduced, the distinction, for high passes. Due to complaints from universities regarding the problem with distinguishing between pass grades, in 1963, a grading scale close to the current one was created, but retaining an O-level pass between the grades E and F (Fail). When GCSEs were introduced, the O-level pass was dropped, replaced by a grade N, standing for 'Near miss'. The grade F was also replaced by a grade U. The grade N was dropped when the AS and A2 system was adopted.

Because British students often apply to universities before they have taken their A-levels, the universities consider predicted A-level results when considering whether or not to offer places to applicants. The predictions are made by students' teachers and are notoriously unreliable. An offer of a place will usually require students to achieve a minimum set of grades (e.g. obtain three grades in their upcoming exams: B, B and C or UCAS points) in the A-levels before they are officially admitted. A-level results are published in mid-August, allowing students and universities to organise university places to commence study in September or October of the same calendar year.

For many years, the average grades achieved by A-level candidates have been steadily rising. The government and teaching bodies maintain that the improved grades represent achieving higher levels of understanding due to improved teaching methods, but many educationalists and elements of the popular press argue that the change is due to grade inflation and the examinations are getting easier. A third view is that, as schools come under increasing pressure to improve their examination results, pupils are being coached to pass specific examinations, at the expense of a general understanding of their subjects. Universities have complained that the increasing number of A grades awarded makes it hard to distinguish between different students at the upper end of the ability spectrum. The C grade was originally intended to represent the average ability, and students typically require to score 60% or higher across all assessments to attain it, however, the average result is now at the lower end of the B grade, rendering this measure almost meaningless.


Following the introduction of 'Curriculum 2000' in 2001, an A-level now consists of six modules studied over two years. Three modules are assessed at the end of the first year, and make up a qualification called the "AS-level" (or Advanced Subsidiary level). Another three modules are assessed at the end of the second year (which make up a qualification called the "A2": an AS and an A2 in the same subject constitute a complete A-level). There is an opportunity in the second year of study to resit any AS modules that have gone badly, and many students take advantage of this. An AS level is a qualification in its own right, and need not be continued to A2 level to be considered by universities or potential employers.

Modules are assessed by exam papers marked by national organisations and internally-assessed coursework. Four organisations set and mark exam papers in England and Wales (AQA, Edexcel, OCR and the WJEC). The CCEA sets them in Northern Ireland. International exams managed by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) also have A-levels in a variety of subjects.

Studying A-levels

The number of A-level exams taken by students can vary, though generally not in the state-sector in which over 90% of students are educated. The normal route is to study four subjects at AS level and then drop down to three at A2 level, although many students continue with their fourth subject. Three is (usually) the minimum required for university entrance. Some students obtain five or more A-levels: those that do have often taken languages that they already speak fluently, or multiple sciences and mathematics, which can have similar content. 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 exclusive of it. For example, a student of maths, physics and computing might receive an offer "BBC" for a physics degree, whereas one also taking General Studies would receive "BCC". That said, if the student gets a C in General Studies, and B-C-D in their other three, regardless of the second C, they would have failed to reach the conditions of their offer, and thus lose that place.

A-levels can go quite deep into their subjects, but they have been criticised for lacking the breadth of qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, or the curricula found in American high schools, since most A-level students do not study more than 3 subjects. A major part of this criticism is that, while a 3- or 4- subject curriculum can be balanced across the spectrum, e.g. those of one each or three of four from the sciences, humanities, languages and arts (broad studies), in many cases students choose three closely-linked subjects, e.g. maths-physics-chemistry or sociology-psychology-politics (focused studies). Thus, while the purpose of Curriculm 2000 was to encourage students to undertake contrasting subjects, to broaden their 'skill-base', there is a tendency to pursue similar disciplines.

On a less serious note, the NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) in the Harry Potter books are a thinly-disguised reference to A-levels, which British author J. K. Rowling took.

See also

Our sister project, Wikibooks, provides an electronic book on A-level.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 06:20:44
Last updated: 03-06-2005 01:40:21