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What are AS and A-Levels?

AS and A-Levels are the next stage of learning after GCSEs. They’re studied over 1 or 2 years and can open doors - to further education and to future careers. Colleges of further education have taken on the role previously occupied by secondary schools.

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Happy teenage girls wearing graduation gowns and mortar boardsA-Levels (Advanced Levels) are the significant exams that follow GCSEs. How well students perform in their A-Levels has a profound impact on their educational future, as it determines access to degree courses and future career opportunities. But what exactly do A-Levels entail, and what about AS-Levels? This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of these qualifications.

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What is KS5?

The education of children and young people is divided into key stages. Primary schools cover Key Stages 1 and 2, while secondary schools focus on Key Stages 3 and 4. Key Stage 5, or KS5, is delivered in Years 12 and 13, targeting students aged 16 to 18. In the past, most secondary schools had "sixth-forms" to cater to KS5 students. However, colleges of further education have now assumed this role, with many offering a wide range of courses leading to vocational qualifications, such as:

  • BTEC - Business and Technology Education Council qualifications in vocational subjects like childcare or business studies, which have different levels, from equivalent to a GCSE to a university degree.
  • HNC/HND - Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma, roughly equivalent to one to two years of university education in diverse subjects, from archaeology to interior design.
  • RQF - Regulated Qualifications Framework, replacing NVQs in 2015, with nine levels ranging from Entry Level to Level 8, equivalent to a PhD.

While BTECs, HNC/HNDs, RQFs, and vocational qualifications focus on practical subjects, AS and A-Levels are considered more academic, and this guide will primarily focus on the latter.

Why Should Students Pursue A-Levels?

After completing their GCSEs, students face several options for further education: apprenticeships for those who prefer to learn while working, vocational qualifications for a combination of hands-on and academic learning, or A-Levels. A-Levels are an excellent choice for students who enjoy traditional schooling, provided they meet the required GCSE grades.

A-Levels serve as a foundational step toward various careers and offer access to universities. Many degree programs, such as medicine or veterinary science, require A-Levels as a prerequisite for enrolment.

Even for those who do not plan on attending university or have not yet decided on a career path, A-Levels offer valuable advantages. They are highly regarded by employers and provide 16-year-olds with time to explore their options after college.

My advice: If you have a clear career goal, determine the necessary qualifications. If it's a practical field, vocational qualifications may be best. If you need a degree, identify the required A-Levels or other qualifications for enrolment. If you're uncertain about your career path, choose a balanced set of A-Level subjects that genuinely interest you.

AS and A-Levels are typically completed over one or two years and can open doors to higher education and future career opportunities.

What GCSE Grades Are Required for A-Levels?

To pursue A-Levels, students must meet the course's entry criteria, which varies between colleges and is based on their GCSE results. GCSE results provide insights into A-Level performance, and colleges scrutinize them closely. Requirements can range from accepting four subjects at grade 4 (C) to demanding six subjects at grade 7 or higher (A-A*).

If your GCSE results are not up to the required standard, resits may be an option. You can study GCSEs at a college, but this may extend the duration of your A-Level studies by a year. It's a worthwhile option if you barely missed your desired results. However, if there's a significant gap, vocational qualifications might be more suitable.

What Subjects Are Available for A-Levels?

A wide array of subjects can be studied at A-Level, with colleges listing the subjects they offer in their prospectuses. To provide a general overview of available subjects, here's a list of common A-Level subjects:

  • Accounting
  • Ancient History
  • Archaeology
  • Art and Design
  • Biology
  • Business Studies
  • Chemistry
  • Communication Studies
  • Computing
  • Critical Thinking
  • D&T - Food Technology
  • D&T - Product Design
  • D&T - Systems and Control
  • Drama and Theatre Studies
  • Economics
  • Electronics
  • English Language
  • English Language and Literature
  • English Literature
  • Environmental Science
  • Foreign languages (many subjects, from Arabic to Urdu)
  • General Studies
  • Geography
  • Geology
  • Government and Politics
  • Graphic Design
  • Health and Social Care
  • History
  • History of Art
  • Home Economics
  • Human Biology
  • ICT
  • Law
  • Mathematics
  • Marine Science
  • Media Studies
  • Music
  • Music Technology
  • Performing Arts
  • Philosophy
  • Photography
  • Physics
  • Religious Studies
  • Sociology
  • Sport and Physical Education
  • Textiles
  • Three-Dimensional Design

In addition to these A-Level subjects, there are some subjects that can be studied at AS-Level (Advanced Subsidiary) but not at A-Level. Examples include European Studies, Science for Public Understanding, Citizenship, Use of Mathematics, and American History.

Certain practical subjects, such as business, travel and tourism, or health and social care, can be taken as Applied A-Levels, which blend academic and hands-on learning.

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How to Choose A-Level Subjects?

Selecting A-Levels is a significant decision that can shape your future. Start by determining how many A-Levels you will take; most universities require a minimum of three, and some require more. However, remember that A-Levels are more challenging than GCSEs, so avoid overcommitting.

Next, choose a combination of subjects. If you already know the degree you want to pursue, select A-Levels that meet its requirements. If you're uncertain about your future, opt for a diverse mix of subjects. Keep in mind that certain A-Level subjects, like critical thinking or general studies, are less favoured by some universities. However, strong grades in nearly any A-Level subject should suffice for admission to less selective institutions.

It's also worth considering subjects you genuinely enjoy, even if they are not directly related to your chosen career. However, ensure that your selections don't prevent you from studying other necessary subjects.

What Are AS-Levels?

Before 2015, A-Level courses were divided into two parts: AS-Level (the first year) and A2 (the second year). Reforms have since made AS-Levels standalone courses, typically completed in one year. Students have the option to take AS-Levels alongside their A-Levels.

How Are A-Levels Assessed?

Formerly, A-Levels were modular, with coursework and exams throughout the course. However, recent changes have made A-Levels linear. Now, A-Levels are primarily assessed through exams taken at the end of the two-year course, with a significant reduction in coursework, focusing on essential skills relevant to the course.

A-Levels are awarded six pass grades:

  • A* – The highest grade, achieved by about 8% of students.
  • A – A high pass, attained by approximately 26% of candidates.
  • B – A good pass, with just over half of A-Level students scoring a B or higher in 2017.
  • C – Considered a decent pass, with almost 80% of students earning Cs or higher.
  • D – A lower pass grade, awarded to 15% of candidates.
  • E – The lowest pass grade, received by an average of 6% of students annually.
  • U – Ungraded, assigned to about 2% of A-Levels.

Despite government reforms, the distribution of grades has remained consistent with previous years.

What A-level Grades Are Required for University?

The grades you achieve in your A-Levels influence your eligibility for acceptance by universities, with each institution having different criteria. As a general rule, higher grades expand your choice of universities.

The UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) points system, also known as the UCAS Tariff, assigns a numerical value to each grade. About a third of universities use this system to assess applicants. Even if your preferred university does not use UCAS points, they can still provide an estimate of the value of your grades. Here are the UCAS points for AS and A-Level grades:

AS-Level Grade A-Level Grade UCAS Points
- A* 56
- A 48
- B 40
- C 32
- D 24
A - 20
B E 16
C - 12
D - 10
E - 6

The number of UCAS points required varies significantly based on the course and university, ranging from 32 points for some courses to 144 points for others. Therefore, it's essential to determine the specific requirements for your desired course.

Most universities require you to have a minimum of three A-Levels and some want more.

What Are the Options After A-Levels?

Stressed teenage girl taking A-level exam

Once you have your A-Level results, you may wonder about your next steps. Your grades influence your choices, but if you pass, several options are available:

  • Higher education – For most 18-year-olds, university is the natural progression after A-Levels. Better grades provide access to a wider range of universities, but opportunities exist even with lower grades.
  • Employment – A-Levels are highly regarded by employers, making finding a job a viable choice. However, higher qualifications often lead to better career prospects.
  • Work and study – Some employers offer opportunities to study for a degree while working, possibly covering the costs. Degree apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships, or advanced apprenticeships are options to consider.
  • Part-time study – If you cannot find an employer to sponsor your education, consider evening classes. You can work during the day to support yourself and study at your local college or with the Open University. Part-time courses take longer but lead to the desired qualifications.
  • Gap year – Taking a gap year is a break from formal education. It can be a valuable experience if used to gain practical skills or volunteer. Universities do not discriminate against students who take gap years, but how you spend that time can impact your future.

In summary, A-Levels serve as the next step after GCSEs and open various doors to higher education and future careers. This guide aims to help you decide if A-Levels are the right choice for you. For additional education-related questions, explore our Knowledge Bank for answers.

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