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Understanding the new AS and A Levels

29 August 2017

AS and A Levels are studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland operates an independent system of Higher qualifications. There are currently around 80 AS and A Level subjects for students to choose from. Students can select from a wide range of academic subjects, as well as some ‘applied’ (work-related) subjects.

About A Level and AS Level

Generally, students progress to AS and A Levels in the academic year following their GCSE results, but these qualifications can be taken at any age.

AS Levels generally take one year to complete, and A Levels are studied across two years. Both qualifications focus on traditional study skills and are generally studied full time at school or a higher-education college, but they are also available part time. To study AS and/or A Levels, pupils usually need to have studied their chosen subjects at GCSE or IGCSE. Schools normally expect pupils to have achieved five GCSEs at grades A*–C, with at least a B grade in their chosen subjects.

AS and A Levels are graded A–E. The A was introduced in 2008 to differentiate the highest-performing students from other A-grade candidates. Exams are taken in May/June, and the results are published in August.

AS Level: the changes

New AS and A Levels were introduced in September 2015. The two qualifications have been decoupled in England, so that AS Level results no longer count towards an A Level and the AS Level is a standalone qualification. In contrast, AS Levels remain part of the A Level in Wales and Northern Ireland, and contribute 40 per cent towards the final A Level result.

Students take their AS Level qualifications at the end of Year 12. They can then either discontinue the subject or continue it at A Level. The advantage of taking an AS exam is that pupils can judge how they are progressing and whether they want to study the subject to A Level. Most students study three or four AS Levels.

However, since the decoupling of AS Levels from A Levels in England, the number of pupils taking AS Levels has fallen by 14 per cent, as more students have chosen to study for their A Levels over a two-year period. This means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to use the AS Level results as a guide to offering places.

According to the Department for Education (DfE), the decoupling is designed so that schools and colleges can co-teach the AS with the A Level, which means that lessons may include a mix of students taking the AS and A Level in a given subject.

A further advantage is that students are not interrupted half way through their A Level course to revise and take their AS Level examinations.

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