Key Changes to A levels in England

Starting from September 2015, Ofqual  commenced the roll out of changes to A levels. The reforms to A level qualifications (GCE Advanced levels) which started nearly three years ago are still on going and by summer 2018, about 50% of all A-level grades in England will be awarded under the new system. The vast majority of the remaining A-level subjects including further mathematics will follow suit by 2019.

The reforms are quite extensive, some subjects such as General Studies and Citizenship Studies will no longer be offered at A levels and the course content of all the subjects have been reviewed and updated with the universities being actively engaged in the revision process. Although there are changes across the UK, the reforms in England are not exactly the same as those in Wales & Northern Ireland. This articles focuses on the changes to A levels in England.

Here are 6 things every student needs to know about the new style A levels in England.

1. A levels are now linear and mainly exam based

In the past, A level exams were modular which meant that the courses were broken into modules; grades awarded were based on a combination of course work, practical assessments as well as exams completed over the course of the two-year A level period. In that system, students could resit their exams the following January if they didn’t get the grades they were aiming for in May/June. In fact there could be multiple resits and attempts at a single module within the two-year period.

Following the changes to A levels, the system is now linear and apart from a few subjects like Art where practical assessment is required, the grades are mainly exam based and the student sits the exams for all their A level subjects at the end of the two-year period. This concentrated linear focus on exams obviously means a lot more pressure for students however the student who has cultivated effective study skills should be well equipped to tackle and succeed under the new style assessment criteria.

2. AS exams are now decoupled from A2 exams

Previously students sat their Advanced Subsidiary (AS) exams at the end of the first year of their A level course and their A2 exams at the end of their second year. Both their AS and A2 grades were then combined to arrive at the overall A level grade. Effectively the grade they attained in a subject at AS level equated to 50% of the final grade for that subject.

Contrary to what some may think, the AS level exams have not been scrapped as a result of the A level changes, rather their value has become questionable as they are now standalone exams and the grades awarded no longer count towards the final A level grades. The grades obtained in the first year cannot be coupled with the grades obtained at the end of the second year to arrive at a final A-level award. One of the reasons why it is easy to assume AS level exams have been scrapped is that a lot of schools do not bother to offer this option to their students. Basically some schools question the efficacy of putting their students through such an external exam process more so when it is not mandatory. In the schools or colleges where they are available, the exams are taken at the end of their first year of A levels as usual.

3. GCSEs may become an important selection criteria for Universities

It is useful to remember that the changes to A levels notwithstanding, universities have not changed their offers and admissions timeline which means they still make provisional offers to students at the start of Year 13. In the past the predicted grades that came from the schools were mainly based on AS grades achieved at the end of Year 12  however following the A level reforms, most schools now derive the predicted grades from their own internal exams and assessments. Universities in general are therefore not using AS grades to arrive at their conditional offer decisions potentially because they don’t have the luxury of uniformity given that many students are no longer taking the AS exams.

In this new era, some of the students applying to universities will have internally assessed Year 12 exam grades whilst others will have externally assessed AS grades. This lack of independent calibration may cause universities to look more intently beyond the school’s predicted A level grades to other standardised criteria such as GCSE grades (which every student has) as well as standard assessments and tests such as LNAT, UKCAT amongst other things before they arrive at their offer decisions.

It is worthy of note that despite these potential selection criteria changes each standalone AS level qualification has a UCAS tariff and all things being equal such grades could boost a student’s overall UCAS points especially where a student is very talented and has chosen to take an AS paper as an extra course.

4. Grades remain the same but the UCAS points have changed

Students are still awarded grades A to E including A* at A-levels. This remains the same despite other changes to A levels however UCAS has made changes to the tariff points awarded for each grade on two fronts:

  1. The UCAS points per A level grade have changed. For example A* used to command 140 points but this is now 56 points. This however has no bearing on the value of an A*, the points have simply been revised to standardise across a broad range of further education qualifications.
  2. Previously, an AS level grade had UCAS points equivalent to 50% of an A-level grade however following the reforms to A levels it only amounts to circa 40% of the UCAS tariff points awarded for a full A level grade.

The tables below illustrate these changes.

Old UCAS Points for A levels
New UCAS Points for  A levels
A* 140 56
A 120 48
B 100 40
C 80 32
D 60 24
E 40 16


New UCAS Points for A levels
New UCAS Points for AS levels
A* 56 N/A
A 48 20
B 40 16
C 32 12
D 24 10
E 16 6


Old UCAS Points for A levels
Old UCAS Points for AS levels
A* 140 N/A
A 120 60
B 100 50
C 80 40
D 60 30
E 40 20


5. Schools and Colleges have a choice regarding AS level exams

One of the changes to A levels is that it is no longer compulsory for students to take AS level exams at the end of Year 12. A school can therefore choose to assess their students by internal exams instead. The current evidence is that a lot of schools are opting out of the external AS exam route.

These schools take the view that they should focus on teaching their students thoroughly and preparing them for the all-important exams which will be taken at the end of the second year. The rationale for this approach is that external exams at the end of the first year could be an unnecessary distraction which takes away from teaching and learning time more so as these exams do not count towards the final grades. They would rather assess the students through internal exams and let them get on with in-depth learning and preparation for the sixth-form final year exams.

There could be a downside to this where the student has a rocky relationship with a particular subject teacher. Not having recourse to an independently marked exam which could potentially yield a strong AS grade could mean the student is at the mercy of a teacher’s predicted grade which could be slightly subjective.

Any student who definitely wants to sit AS level exams perhaps for example because they want additional UCAS points should first check with the sixth-form school or college they intend to attend so they can be clear about the school’s approach before making a commitment to spend their A level years there. There is also the alternative to take the exams privately, terms and conditions should be checked on the relevant exams board’s websites, some of these which can be accessed via these links:

6. Changes to A levels mean some subjects have now been scrapped

Some subjects will no longer be available as A levels. In the main, these subjects are seen by Ofqual as overlaps, already included or which can be included in other subjects. For some of these eg General Studies and Citizenship Studies, it was only a matter of time before it happened as historically the leading universities typically did not consider grades in these subjects to be a part of the grades underpinning their provisional offer.

  • Anthropology
  • Applied art and design
  • Applied business
  • Applied information and communication technology
  • Applied science
  • Citizenship studies
  • Communication and Culture
  • Creative writing
  • Critical thinking
  • Economics and Business (these will still exist as separate subjects)
  • Engineering
  • General studies
  • Health and social care
  • Home economics: Food, nutrition and health
  • Human biology
  • Humanities
  • ICT
  • Leisure studies
  • Media: Communication and production
  • Moving image arts
  • Pure mathematics
  • Science in society
  • Travel and tourism
  • World development

The following will not be available at A levels but will still be offered at AS level:

  • Global development
  • Quantitative methods
  • Science
  • Use of mathematics

Every change brings with it risks and opportunities… watch out for our coming blogs on this topic to gain further insight into the opportunities linked to the changes to A levels and how you can make the most of them.

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