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An A-level, short for Advanced level, is a General Certificate of Education, usually taken by students in the final two years of secondary education, 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). A-levels are also taken in many former British colonies, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, although today they differ from the A-levels taken in the United Kingdom. A-levels are available in a wide range of subjects. They were first introduced in 1951, replacing the previous award, the Higher School Certificate (HSC). Universities in the UK frequently demand that applicants achieve a minimum set of grades in A-level examinations, or the equivalent in other examination systems, before accepting them.


Grades and grading history

A-levels are graded from A to E, along with a fail grade, U (ungraded). Originally, they only distinguished between a pass and a fail, although fails were divided into two types: one meaning that the student had failed a subject 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 that the grading system was not specific enough to identify the students they wanted, a grading scale close to the current one was created in 1963, which retained an O-level pass between the grades E and F (Fail). When GCSEs were introduced, and also to resolve the long standing problem of the narrow spread of marks between the grade boundaries, the O-level pass was dropped, replaced by a grade N, standing for 'Near miss', which was a much narrower denotation for candidates who failed to achieve the minimum standard for an A-level pass by only a few marks. The grade F was also replaced by a grade U. With the increase in the modular structure of the A-level examinations, the retention of the grade N was considered unnecessary as there was far more evidence to indicate how close a candidate was to achieving a pass. Therefore, with the introduction of the new revised A-levels in 2001, the grade N was finally dropped.

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 or not applicants should be offered places. The predictions are made by students' teachers and can be unreliable. However, the acceptance of a student onto a course will normally be conditional on him or her actually achieving a minimum set of grades (e.g. obtain three grades in upcoming exams: B, B and C). Universities may specify which subjects they wish these grades to be in. A-level grades are also sometimes converted into numerical scores (for example, one system[1] (http://www.tcea.org.uk/Documents/ucas_points_system.htm) considers an A at A-level to be worth 120 points, while a B is worth 100, a C is worth 80, and a D is 60, etc.), so a university may instead demand that an applicant achieve 280 points, instead of the equivalent offer of B-B-C. This allows more 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.

Students are allowed to accept offers from two universities: one acceptance is a firm choice, which, if they achieve the minimum grades, they are contractually bound to attend or they must withdraw from the university application process entirely for that year. The other acceptance is known as an insurance choice, which has lower grade requirements, and is a backup in case the student does not meet the requirements of the firm choice university. 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. Students who have not met the requirements for their firm choice university may accept their insurance offer if they have met the requirements for that. They may also choose to reapply next year, or find courses with places still left through the clearing process organised by UCAS.

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 higher levels of achievement due to improved and more experienced 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. Still another view is that, as the cost to an examination board of changing a subject's syllabus is very high, they are reluctant to do so, leading to a lengthy period over which exam questions will inevitably be very similar and so teaching towards their likely content will be more successful.

Universities in Britain 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 required 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. Many universities now have their own entrance tests or interviews to distinguish between applicants. In 2005, the head of admissions at Cambridge University outlined changes he believed should be made to the current system[2] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4538127.stm), including more use of the Advanced Extension Awards.


Following the introduction of 'Curriculum 2000' in September 2000 (with the first exams in Summer 2001), an A-level now consists of six modules studied over two years. Normally, three modules are assessed at the end of the first year, and make up a stand-alone 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 (retake the examination in) any AS modules that have gone badly, and many students take advantage of this.

As the AS-level is a qualification in its own right, it does not need to be continued to A2 level to be considered by universities or potential employers; however, the A2 qualification on its own is meaningless. Some students sit all of their AS and A2 examinations at the beginning of the first or second year. In the first case, this means they complete the A-level in one year, which is possible for more able students. In the latter case, students do not have the opportunity to resit any modules and have a more stressful workload at the end of their second year, but the advantage is that they have more time to concentrate on absorbing details of the subject during the first year.

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 number of A-levels required for university entrance, with some universities specifying the need for a fourth AS subject. 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 courses, which can have overlapping 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. For example, a student of maths, physics and computing might receive an offer of B-B-C for a physics degree, whereas one also taking General Studies would receive B-C-C.

Compared with the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, or the curricula of high schools in the United States, the A-level system can go deeper into the subjects being studied, but it has been criticised for providing less breadth since many A-level students do not study more than 3 subjects in their final year. A major part of this criticism is that, while a 3- or 4- 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, e.g. maths-physics-chemistry or sociology-psychology-politics. 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. A notable example of this is Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who studied for A-levels in English, French and German. The NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) created by her and mentioned in her books are a thinly-disguised reference to A-level exams.

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