Advanced Levels (A Levels) are the traditional academic qualification available to students aged 16-19. The can be studied alone, alongside an EPQ or NVQ or as part of a Diploma.

A Levels are made up of AS (advanced subsidiary) and A2 units. An AS Level comprises 3 modules and is therefore half the size of a full A Level, which comprises 6 modules. In Year 12 (Lower Sixth), students generally take four A Levels and sit AS exams in the third term of the year. They can then either drop a subject and gain the AS Level, which is common, or continue the subject onto A Level by studying the A2 units. Students may also have to undertake coursework depending on the course they choose to study.

Desks lined up in an exam hall

Image Credit: Charl Cater/

Subject availability depends on each students’ college and timetable. However, they will be able to choose from a range including the sciences, arts, languages, humanities and social sciences.

A Levels focus on traditional, academic study skills and are the most common qualification for those looking to attend university. However, they are also highly valued by employers meaning they offer the flexibility of looking for a job straight away. Following A Levels, students will also be qualified to apply for a higher apprenticeship.

Students can obtain a grade between A-E at AS Level and A*-E at A Level, and their results come out on the second Thursday of August.

Students who are unhappy with their results can request their papers from the exam body, ask for their paper to be remarked or request that their marks be added up again. They can also appeal to the awarding body, Ofqual or the Independent Examinations Appeals Board where necessary.

It is possible to re-sit all AS and A2 units, and the awarding body will automatically use the highest mark gained. However, in recent years all previous attempts have been recorded on students’ academic records meaning they can be seen by employers and universities.

For students looking to attend university, who are unsure of what A Level subjects to take, the Russell Group regularly produces a leaflet, Informed Choices, which outlines what is needed to attend one of their universities. Many popular degrees are open to students without any specific subject background. However, for a better chance, the Russell Group propose that students study ‘facilitating subjects’, such as Maths, Sciences, English Literature, History, Geography and Languages . They also explain A-Levels and GCSE requirements for specific degrees, such as Medicine, Engineering, Architecture etc.

A-Level Changes

As you may or may not know, from September, A-Levels are becoming linear, with all exams being taken at the end of two years of study in the May-June period of Upper Sixth/Year 13 (and no exams in January). An AS-Level can be taken as a separate qualification, with exams at the end of the first year, however the marks from them will no longer count towards the final A-Level grade. In this way, the AS and A-Level have become ‘decoupled’.  At the same time, the AS and first year of A-Level are designed to be ‘co-teachable’ so students only pursuing the AS-Level will be taught in the same class as A-Level students.

Assessment will mainly consist of exams, with other types of assessment used only when they are needed to test essential skills. Specific changes to assessment include science practicals. Under the old system, up to 30% of the overall A-Level grade was derived from the assessment of the pupil’s practical skills. Under the new system, 15% of the marks in the written exams will assess students’ understanding of practical work and will contribute to their overall grade. They will also be assessed on their practical skills separately, receiving an additional pass or fail which will be recorded on their qualification certificate.

Each student will carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities over the two years, with the activities being referenced in the final written exam and contributing to their separate practical result. UCAS will ask your child’s school or college when they apply whether they are predicted to pass the science practical assessment in the same way they would an A-level. The requirement to pass is likely to vary - it may depend on the university and whether the course your child chooses involves lab and practical work. Where this is the case, they will make it clear in their entry requirements.

The content of the qualifications is also being reviewed to make sure it is up-to-date, however the standard of the qualifications will stay the same. The grading of the qualifications will also not change, with pupils able to achieve A-E at AS-Level and A*-E at A Level.  

Confusingly, the changes in the A-Level system are taking place over three years, with some courses switching to the new system this year with results coming out in 2017, some next year with results coming out in 2018, and some in 2017 with results coming out in 2019. In this way, your child may be taking subjects under both the old and the new system, with some AS-Levels and modular exams, and some exams only at the end of the two-year period.

For more information, please see The new A-levels - there's no need to be confused!

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