AS and A levels: Everything you need to know about AS and A levels

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  • AS and A levels are the next big step in a child’s education after their GCSE examinations.

    AS and A Levels (short for Advanced Level) differ from GCSEs as they offer an opportunity for your child to specialise in subjects that they are really interested in.

    Our quick insider’s guide to AS and A levels will take you through the basics of how they work, so you can be ready to help your teen through their choices and reap the rewards on A level results day.

    What are AS and A levels?

    The majority of students complete their A levels between the age of 16-18. A levels results are used to apply to university, although they are also useful when choosing to go straight into paid work or in order to train as an apprentice.

    A levels became GCE A levels in 2000 and were split into two units that introduced a separate AS and A2 level. Spread out over two years, the changes were made so students could broaden their knowledge of their subjects.

    A levels can either be studied at secondary school within Sixth Form or at college. Lots of students choose to pick four AS levels to study during the first year, then drop one of the subjects in year two when they complete their A levels.

    AS levels can stand as a qualification on their own or can be carried on to A2 the next year to complete the full A level qualification.

    A close-up of a female ginger teenager sitting her AS and A Levels examinations

    Credit: Getty

    How do A Levels work?

    A levels are mainly assessed through written exams and coursework. Both are graded separately and then added together to produce the overall grade for the year.

    Coursework is only carried out for certain subjects and usually done outside of school time. Exams are carried out between May-June.

    It’s worth noting that the pandemic has affected AS and A Levels results and how they will be assessed this year. All school exams are cancelled in 2021 – this includes AS and A Level exams. This means that student’s grades this year will be decided by teachers and based on coursework, mock exams and any other work completed over the course. 

    A Level grades explained

    A levels are graded in a similar way to GCSEs and graded A*-E.

    When applying to university, AS level grades (for subjects that were just taken for one year) and final A level grades are converted into UCAS points – with the higher grades scoring higher points. University courses require a certain amount of UCAS points which are usually dependent on the popularity of the course and the standard of grades that the university wants.

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    What subjects can be studied at AS and A Level?

    There are a large range of subjects that can be studied at A level but it depends what your particular school or college has on offer. The choices are similar to those at GCSE and usually allow students to carry on the subjects that they like from GCSE. Many schools/colleges require a GCSE in a subject to carry it on at A level.

    Some schools or colleges will do extra subjects at AS that might not have been an option at GCSE. Psychology, Photography and Economics have all become popular choices for A levels so it’s worth checking out several colleges in your area to see what’s on offer for your teen.

    The best way for your child choose their subjects if for them to simply choose the ones they’re interested in and find enjoyable, as this will boost their chances of succeeding. Pressuring them to choose subjects that they do not like could mean they don’t engage with the course as much.

    AS and A levels

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    It’s a good idea to sit down together and talk about which ones they’re considering and helping them to make a decision that they’re happy with. It’s also important to consider which ones they need if they have their heart set on a specific career.

    From 2017 onwards, it’s worth noting that examining body Ofqual decided that the following subjects will no longer be available, as they are too similar to other related options.

    • 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 (jointly – can still be taken as separate subjects)
    • Engineering
    • General studies
    • Global development (will be available at AS only)
    • Health and social care
    • Home economics: Food, nutrition and health
    • Human biology
    • Humanities Information and communication technology (ICT)
    • Leisure studies
    • Media: Communication and production
    • Moving image arts
    • Pure mathematics
    • Quantitative methods (will be available at AS only)
    • Science (will be available at AS only)
    • Science in society
    • Statistics
    • Travel and tourism
    • Use of mathematics (will be available at AS only) and World development

    What are the most popular A Levels?

    The most popular A Levels in England for 2020 were:

    1. Mathematics
    2. Psychology
    3. Biology
    4. Chemistry
    5. History
    6. Art and Design Subjects
    7. English Literature
    8. Sociology
    9. Physics
    10. Business Studies

    Research from 2020 shows that the most popular A Levels are predominantly core subjects like Maths, Science and English

    Psychology has also become a popular A Level choice in recent years, jumping from third to second place in England’s top A-Level subjects data.

    A teenager studying for her AS and A Levels examinations on mathematics

    Credit: Getty

    Are A Levels getting ‘easier’?

    There has been speculation over recent years that questions whether A Levels are getting ‘easier’.

    One study compared A Level mathematics exams from 1960, 1990 and 2010s to evaluate whether standards have changed and A Levels are easier.

    “The fact there has been no decline in standards since the 1990s is the big surprise,” says Ian Jones, one of the scholars behind Fifty years of A‐level mathematics: have standards changed?

    “Perhaps people can now worry less that standards continue to decline – there is no evidence they have changed since the 1990s – and focus more confidently on making sure A-levels are fit for the purposes they need to serve nowadays.”

    A close-up of marked school papers

    Credit: Getty

    Concerns on A Levels getting easier has stemmed around research that reveals an increase in students today achieving A grades.

    According to data from The Spectator, only 18% achieved an A in 1994, whilst 26% of students received an A or A* in 2014 and 2019.

    Whilst grade inflation has led to higher grades for UK students, it doesn’t necessarily mean that A Levels are getting easier. This is because as the grades go up, so do the expectations.

    What options are there other than A levels?

    If your child can’t stand the thought of having to stay at school for another two years, then there are lots of alternatives that can still gain them qualifications after GCSEs.

    There are several ‘vocational’ (work related) qualifications out there which develop the skills and knowledge for when they’re ready to find paid work. Many teens just aren’t suited to education and find that learning hands-on skills – such as engineering or catering – much more stimulating than learning out of books.

    GNVQs and Vocational A levels are taught at many colleges where students can gain qualifications outside of the classroom.

    On the job experience is also another popular option for young people who want employment without achieving additional qualifications. The government promotes a large number of UK apprenticeships that school leavers can consider in place of A Levels.

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