What are a-Levels?

S.R. Lewis

A-levels are a selection of advanced courses taken by students in the United Kingdom as a prerequisite for college or direct access to a career. The term "A-level" refers to Advanced General Certificate of Education, which typically taken after students complete the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Students typically sign up to participate in the coursework between the ages of 16 and 19 or at the beginning of college. Adults who did not begin A-levels immediately after primary school can opt to begin with no age restriction. A-levels are a full-time, two-year program that is made of two components, Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and A2, although it also is possible to take A-levels on a part-time basis.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Students are able to select from more than 80 subjects that focus on health, social studies, science and the arts, as a few examples. Subjects are defined in units. Most classes are two units, with some going up to three units.

Advanced Subsidiary is the first half of the A-level coursework, and it can be taken as a standalone certification without additional schooling, because of the increased level of study and knowledge. Certain subjects are available only at the AS level. Upon completion of the AS, students can elect to take a final examination and go into the workforce. A2 is the next level of units that continues to challenge students and increases knowledge. Units in A2 are not available as a standalone program.

After a student has completed the A-level program, final assessments are taken through traditional examinations or coursework. Most often, a combination of the two is used to evaluate a student’s progression. Courses are graded on a range of A-E, with outcomes being posted in August and March.

The A-level concept has been used since the 1950s as a reflection of high standards in education in the United Kingdom. Scotland does not utilize the system. Over the years, students have earned increasingly higher scores, thus prompting a review of the standards and process used to evaluate a student’s coursework. In 2010, the standards were changed to establish a higher level of academic achievement and a new grading system reflecting the growing knowledge of students.

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