Understanding the new AS and A Levels

Highly regarded by employers and global businesses, AS Levels and A Levels are widely accepted qualifications for university admission but over the past few years, they have undergone significant reform. We take a look at what it means to study the ‘new’ qualifications.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

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AS and A Levels are studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland operates an independent system of Higher qualifications.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsThere are currently around 70 AS and A Level subjects for students to choose from. Students can select from a wide range of academic subjects, as well as some ‘applied’ (work-related) subjects. Generally, students progress to AS and A Levels in the academic year following their GCSE results, but these qualifications can be taken at any age.AS Levels generally take one year to complete, and A Levels are studied across two years. Both qualifications focus on traditional study skills and are generally studied full time at school or a higher-education college, but they are also available part time.To study AS and/or A Levels, pupils usually need to have studied their chosen subjects at GCSE or IGCSE. Schools normally expect pupils to have achieved five GCSEs at grades A*–C, with at least a B grade in their chosen subjects.AS and A Levels are graded A*–E. The A* was introduced in 2008 to differentiate the highest-performing students from other A-grade candidates. Exams are taken in May/June, and the results are published in August.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Changes to AS Levels

New AS and A Levels were introduced in a phased approach from September 2015, the last tranche of subjects being added in 2018. The two qualifications have been decoupled in England, so that AS Level results no longer count towards an A Level and the AS Level is a standalone qualification.In contrast, AS Levels remain part of the A Level in Wales and Northern Ireland, and contribute 40 per cent towards the final A Level result.Students take their AS Level qualifications at the end of Year 12. They can then either discontinue the subject or continue it at A Level. The advantage of taking an AS exam is that pupils can judge how they are progressing and whether they want to study the subject to A Level. Most students study three or four AS Levels.According to the Department for Education (DfE), the decoupling is designed so that schools and colleges can co-teach the AS with the A Level, which means that lessons may include a mix of students taking the AS and A Level in a given subject. A further advantage is that students are not interrupted half way through their A Level course to revise and take their AS Level examinations.However, the government reforms are reducing their popularity – the number of pupils taking AS Levels fell by 42 per cent between 2016 and 2017 and a recent survey from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggests that 86 per cent of school leaders expect to remove AS courses in the future. This means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to use the AS Level results as a guide to offering places.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Changes to A Levels

All A Levels are taken at the end of Year 13 and AS Levels no longer contribute towards the final grade. Under the new system, there is less coursework and fewer practical assessments and the old modular structure has been replaced by a linear one with exams at the end of the course, reducing the number of opportunities for retakes.The number of subjects available at A Level has also been reduced in order to streamline the qualification and ensure academic rigour.

International AS and A Level

The Cambridge Assessment International Examinations (CIE) board, aligned with the University of Cambridge, offers international AS and A Levels. It is the main body to offer the international qualification in England.Like the AS and A Level, the CIE’s international qualification is aimed at students between the ages of 16 and 19. It is taught in over 130 countries. Thousands of CIE students have gone on to gain places at leading universities in countries around the world, including the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.Schools can offer a choice of 55 subjects, in almost any combination. Says the CIE, “This flexibility means schools can build an individualised curriculum, and learners can choose to specialise in a particular subject area or study a range of subjects.”The International AS Level is typically a one-year course and the International A Level a two-year course. Some subjects can be started at AS Level and extended to A Level. The AS Level is graded A–E and the A Level is graded A*–E.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.
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