What are A-Levels?

A-Levels are properly referred to as the Advanced General Certificate of Education. They are one of the types of principal examination course studied by pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland immediately after the conclusion of compulsory education, usually between the ages of 17 and 18, and are the principal entry requirements for most higher education courses. Scotland has a different system altogether, with examinations called Higher grades and Advanced Higher grades.

A-Levels demand more individual, in-depth study than GCSEs and place greater emphasis on traditional academic and study skills.

A-Levels are typically studied for in Further Education Colleges, Sixth Form Colleges or school sixth forms, although adult learners can undertake A-Level courses in a variety of other settings. Most educational institutions set certain GCSE (or equivalent) qualifications as entry requirements to study for A-Levels.

The A-Level today comprises two elements: the Advanced Subsidary (AS), which is a qualification in its own right, and the A2, which is not. AS examinations are taken (usually) after a year of study by all students, and then those who wish to move on to the more demanding A2 exams after a second year of study. The current system was introduced in order to broaden the range of subjects studied by students, which had long been recognised as a weakness of A-Level.

There are about 80 AS and A level subjects available, many of which are not offered at GCSE level (for example law). A-Level syllabuses are set, examinations administered and certificates awarded by a number of "awarding bodies" or Examination Boards (AQA, EDEXCEL, and OCR). 

Students' results are graded from A to E (with U being an "unclassified" fail grade). Assessment is on either formal examination or coursework, or a mixture of the two.

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is the regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland.

In January 2013, Education secretary Michael Gove announced plans to introduce changes to A-level structure, including the development of new AS levels as standalone qualifications.

The first of the new A-levels are scheduled to be taught in schools from September 2015.


GCE A-Level and O-Level examinations were first sat in 1951, on the premise that students took one or the other. Until 1953, A-Level exams were graded only as a pass or fail, at which point a "distinction" grade was introduced. In 1963, a five grade scheme was introduced, with quotas for the allocation of grades: 10 per cent of candidates would receive an A grade, 15 per cent a B, 10 per cent a C, 15 per cent a D, 20 per cent an E, and a further 20 per cent would receive an O Level pass.

This arrangement persisted until the 1980s, with ongoing concern being voiced about the narrowness of many grade boundaries brought about by the quota system: in 1982, some subjects saw a B and a D separated by a margin of just 8 marks. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a campaign to switch the system to a mark-boundary grading system was waged, which was finally successful in 1987. The O-Level pass grade was dropped this year, and replaced by the considerably narrower "N" grade, which signified a "near miss".

1989 saw the introduction of the Advanced Supplementary or AS Level – not to be confused with the Advanced Subsidiary AS of today – in response to longstanding concerns that students were not receiving a sufficiently broad education in concentrating entirely on a few (typically three) A-Level subjects. AS was intended as a qualification of equal difficulty to A Level, taken at 18, but with half the content (and as such half the "value" for university admissions purposes). However, AS never really took off, a situation acknowledged in the 1996 Dearing Report, which proposed the current Advanced Subsidiary and A2 system.

In 2000, the Government published the outcome of its "Curriculum 2000" review programme, proposing a substantial overhaul of the existing A-Level system. In order to address concerns about the breadth of the curriculum, a new modular approach was introduced under which most students study four subjects with three "assessment units" each in their first year of study.

Completion of this AS stage can be a qualification in its own right, or else it constitutes 50 per cent of the marks towards the full A-Level. A2 units, undertaken in the second year of study, reflect the harder elements of the old A-Level syllabuses and contribute the remaining 50 per cent of the marks.

In March 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to Ofqual outlining his concerns about the structure of A levels and proposed certain changes. Ofqual launched a consultation in the summer on the structure and assessment arrangements of A-levels.

Subsequently, in January 2013, Mr Gove outlined future changes to be made to A-level structure, including the development of new AS levels as a standalone qualification.

He also confirmed that leading universities to be more closely involved in developing the content of new A levels, beginning with the subjects most commonly required for undergraduate study.

The Education Secretary said he expected that the first new A levels in facilitating subjects would be developed in time for Ofqual to accredit them so that they are ready for first teaching in September 2015.


A-Levels have, since the 1950s, been held up as representing the "gold standard" of school educational attainment. As with GCSEs, continually rising pass rates – topping 95 per cent in 2003 for the first time – have led to claims that that gold standard has been devalued and that courses are becoming easier.

It is also alleged in many quarters, that some courses are clearly easier than others, and that this has led to a migration of students away from "difficult" subjects, such as mathematics, physics and modern languages, towards subjects that are perceived as easier. Official figures certainly show a trend of fewer candidates taking those courses that are regarded as "harder".

In recent years, the upheavals associated with reforming the structure of A-Levels, and the speed with which this took place, have had serious implications for students. Pass rates for the first AS students were alarmingly low, reflecting poor understanding of the curriculum's demands on the part of schools. Early years of the new system also saw timetabling clashes, as exam boards struggled to co-ordinate properly.

Recent years have also seen scandals erupt in the administration of A-Levels, considerably undermining public confidence in the system. It was alleged in 2002 that exam boards had manipulated grades in order to ensure that the introduction of Curriculum 2000 was not seen to have led to "grade inflation".

A review, headed by Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, ordered a review of grade boundaries – which required reconsideration of 90,000 students' results. At the time, Ron McLone of the OCR board complained that neither the DfES nor the QCA had given advice on how much harder A2 had to be than AS until the last minute. In the end, only a relatively small number of students had their results upgraded, but some did lose out on university places as a result of the problems, and confidence in the system was shaken. The crisis led to the sacking of the head of the QCA, Sir William Stubbs and the resignation of the Education Secretary Estelle Morris.

In response to the difficulties experienced with A-Levels in recent years, the Government set up the Tomlinson Review of 14-19 education. The final Tomlinson Report was published in October 2004 and recommended that A-Levels and GCSEs should be subsumed within a 14-19 diploma model education system. It proposed a four-level diploma system with students taking exams whenever they are ready. At the advanced diploma level there would be extra questions designed to stretch the very brightest and allow universities to distinguish between the top students.

Speaking immediately after the Tomlinson Report Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that A-Levels were here to stay.

In November 2006, the government announced plans to introduce an A* grade for A-levels from 2010. The government said it would also provide funding to ensure that one state school in each education authority offered the International Baccalaureate.

The year 2007 marked a quarter century of improving A-Level grades – reopening the debate on grade inflation. The government rejected claims that exams were getting easier, insisting this devalued the hard work of teachers and students. Independent research, however, has found students' core skills are failing to improve in-line with rising exam grades. Higher education institutions have also been increasingly vocal in criticising the poor quality of many first year students.

Subsequently new A2 exams were designed to "stretch and challenge" the brightest students and the new A* grade first awarded in August 2010 requires candidates to achieve both a grade A on the A-Level overall and at least 90% or more across the A2 units.

A further concern has been an apparent increasing gap which has emerged between students at state schools and private schools and by 2007 this stood at its widest for more than a decade. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance reported that A-Level results at comprehensive schools had remained relatively static, while private schools had made improvements. 15.7 per cent of all A-Level papers were awarded a grade A, but this rose to 31.7 per cent of private school entries.

The controversy was fuelled further by the introduction of the new A* grade with exam results in 2010 suggesting that pupils in the independent sector were three times more likely to achieve an A* than their comprehensive counterparts.

The planned A-level reforms announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove in January 2013 attracted considerable criticism, particularly from the teaching unions.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower warned the changes would be contentious. “If Michael Gove is really interested in ensuring that they are robust and relevant, he should seek the opinion of the teaching profession who on so many occasions the Secretary of State wrongly ignores,” she said.

“It is telling that many of the previous reforms to the A-Level structure that the Secretary of State is seeking to reverse have helped to increase numbers of learners from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds who succeed at A-Level and beyond.”

The general secretary of the NASUWT, Chris Keates, was equally critical. She claimed there was “no evidence” to justify the reforms, but “simply assertions” by the Secretary of State.

"He has repeatedly claimed that there is widespread dissatisfaction with A-levels,” she said. “The fact is that it is only the Coalition Government and its die-hard supporters in the media commentariat that continue to peddle this myth. They have yet to demonstrate that this is, in fact, the case.” 

She added: "It should be a matter of grave concern to all that the development of A-level specifications is to be farmed out to a small group of elite universities.”

However, the Education Secretary defended the changes.

“Current A-levels do not always provide the solid foundation that students need to prepare them for degree-level study and for vocational education,” he said.  “The modular nature of the qualification and repeated assessment windows have contributed to many students not developing deep understanding or the necessary skills to make connections between topics. “

According to Mr Gove, there was “clear dissatisfaction” among leading university academics about the preparation of A-level pupils for advanced studies and nearly three-quarters of lecturers reported having had to  adapt their teaching approaches for under­prepared first year undergraduates. 


Perceptions of A levels.

Survey carried out towards the end of 2011.

Main findings include:
Confidence in A-levels among A-level teachers remains stable (81% compared with 76% in 2010). The proportion of parents reporting more confidence in the A-level system than a few years ago is unchanged.
There has been an increase in the proportion of students who think the A-level is an important qualification to have (94% of students in 2011 versus 78% in 2010). The majority of teachers agree that it is more important now than ever that students have a higher level of education such as an A-level (85%) and that overall, the A-level is an important qualification to have (92%).
The majority of A-level teachers are confident in the accuracy and quality of marking of A-level papers (73%) while three quarters (76%) of students agree that A-level students get the grade their performance deserves.
There has been a significant increase in the proportion of parents who feel the A* grade, which was first awarded in 2010, will help universities to identify top students (75% from 66% in 2010).
The proportion of teachers who say they have to rely on enquiries about results services to get accurate results for their students is consistent with previous years.
There has been an increase in teachers’ awareness of Ofqual since 2010 (76% in 2011 compared with 64% in 2010).
Opinion towards the comparability of vocational qualifications to academic qualifications is mixed. Teachers are more likely to disagree than agree (59% versus 25%) that vocational qualifications are of an equal status to traditional academic qualifications.

Source: Ipsos MORI report on behalf of Ofqual – published March 2012


"The ending of the modular structure of A-levels, the de-coupling of AS levels and A-levels and other changes announced previously, such as limiting resits, are all profound reforms that should not be contemplated lightly.

"The fact that these changes are being taken forward in a cavalier, evidence-lite fashion, which is the norm for this Coalition Government, should be of deep concern to all those who are interested in a high quality, 16 plus qualifications system.”

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT – January 2013

“2015 looks set to be the year when everything changes in schools and for young people with both GCSEs and A-levels being replaced or altered. This is an unmanageable level of change which could lead to a collapse of the system.

“We need an education system that recognises the talents of all young people and prepares them for further study, training and careers across the board, not just the traditional route that Michael Gove is perhaps more familiar and comfortable with.”

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers – January 2013

“It is of paramount importance that new A-levels command the respect of leading universities. 

“Together, these changes will enhance the reputation of A-levels, better prepare more students for higher education, and ensure that competition for university places is fairer.”

Education Secretary Michael Gove – January 2013