History of A-levels

The Advanced Level General Certificate of Education (GCE) or the A-Level has been around for over 60 years. Even today, universities still rely on A-Levels to assess potential students who want to start on a degree course.

Introduction of the A-Level

A-Levels were introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland back in 1951, when they replaced the School Certificate (SC) and Higher School Certificate (HSC). A-Levels had a specific role of offering more subjects to students when the school leaving age was raised in 1947.

Students would usually complete three A-Levels after their O-Levels (replaced by GCSEs in 1988). After A-Levels, students would go on to work, or university. There was also an AO-Level designed for adult learners as well as a Special Paper S-Level that was available to students who scored highly in an A-Level subject.

The Curriculum 2000 Revisions to A-Levels

The Curriculum 2000 was a major revision to the A-Level and this split the A-Level into the AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A2 exams from 2000 onwards. The results of the AS and A2 were then combined to give the A-Level grade.

The purpose of the Curriculum 2000 was to encourage A-Level students to study different subjects, as this would broaden both their skills and knowledge base.

Introduction of the A*

In 2010, the A* grade was awarded at A-Level for the first time. This is for A-Levels where the overall score at A2 is 90% or higher. The A* is not available for AS-Levels.

AS-Levels and A-Levels Today

Nowadays, there are over 40 AS-Levels and A-Levels available in a wide range of subjects. You may wish to choose similar subjects such as Maths, Physics and Computing to meet entry requirements for a specific university course. You may also choose to study a selection of subjects that you enjoy, such as Dance, German and English Literature. This is ideal if you are unsure which degree course you want to study, or if you are looking to start a career or move into training after your A-Levels.

A-Levels also have a global presence; they are available in a number of countries such as:

  • India
  • Malaysia
  • Cyprus
  • New Zealand
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Sri Lanka

Because the structure of the A-levels may differ in some countries, NARIC can be used to check if these A-Levels are ‘worth’ the same as UK A-Levels for those international students who want to attend UK universities.

The Future of AS-Levels and A-Levels

In the last few years, when results become available for A-Level passes, the media and politicians tend to make a lot of fuss. They say that A-Levels are getting easier because so many students are able to pass with high grades. So many passes are also making it more difficult for university admissions tutors to choose which students to offer a place on a degree.

Since then, with the change in government, there have been many alterations to finance for students, such as the removal of EMA and of course, the introduction of higher fees for students wishing to go to university.

It is only recently that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wrote a letter to the Chief Executive of Ofqual (the qualifications regulator for England) saying that he was ‘increasingly concerned’ that A-Levels are not commanding enough confidence.

“Leading university academics tell me that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree” 1

He is recommending that Exam Boards no longer set the content of A-Levels; instead, universities will control the content of A-Levels and possibly change the structure to allow students to arrive better prepared to study at university.

“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications. It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”1

1Letter from Michael Gove (March 2012).

It is possible that these changes will be in place for students starting AS-Levels and A-Levels as soon as 2014. If you are interested in keeping up to date with these major changes to A-Levels, then keep an eye on the BBC or The Guardian.