“The biggest form of peer pressure as a teenager wasn’t drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. It came during exams when it was completely silent and you heard everyone turn to page 2 while you were still on the first question.”

Fuad Alakbarov.

A-Levels represent a critical moment in the educational timeline of many students. They’re often a critical step before moving on to university, work, or another form of further education. This article is the first in a series on the educational timeline of most lawyers/students, providing a comprehensive insight into A-Levels – what their purpose is, how they function, what to do if they don’t go as planned and whether or not they need to be reformed.

What are they?

‘Advanced level qualifications’ – or as they are better known, A-Levels – are a series of qualifications students will often take prior to further study at university, entering the world of work or further qualifications and training. It’s usual for most students to complete them between the ages of 16 and 18 in two separate sections – the ‘AS’ and ‘A2’ levels respectively.

How are they important?

As a general rule, it is likely that A-Levels (or their equivalent) will be required for you to pursue a course or degree at most universities. Over 88% of students that were accepted on to higher education in 2016 applied with A-levels. They might contribute to your ‘UCAS score’, be expected in your application’s portfolio, or fit alongside other potential entry requirements. Said requirements may differ based on the subject you’re looking to study, or the specific university you’re looking to attend.

How are they graded?

In a similar fashion to GCSEs, A-Levels are graded from A*-E. For the purposes of university applications, these grades will then be converted into UCAS points, with higher grades resulting in more points.

It’s also important to note that the two separate sections of AS and A2 are stand-alone qualifications. The results of your AS will not contribute towards your A-level grades.

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What happens if you don’t get the grades you need?

If you don’t quite make the grades you’re needing for your preferred course/university, you’ll have a number of options available, such as:

  • Re-sit the exam: if you failed your exam, or were significantly short of the grade you were looking for, it might be worth considering resitting your exam in its entirety. You can often choose to re-enrol or take another attempt at the same educational institution you made your first attempt at, or through other means such as online study. You’ll almost always resit at the same time other candidates attempt the exam, so be sure to check any upcoming deadlines you’ll need to apply for your resit by.
  • Repeal/challenge the grade: this involves requesting another invigilator to review the same set of answers you gave in your initial attempt. This is generally preferable when you’ve missed a certain grade boundary by a narrow margin.
  • Talk to Ofqual: if, following one these above options, you’re still not satisfied with your grade/the way it has been assessed, you can appeal further to the exam board regulator, Ofqual.
  • Call/speak to your preferred University directly
  • Take a gap year
  • Consider an alternative post-study option, such as apprenticeships
  • Try and secure work experience/a year in industry
  • Go through the clearing process

Do they need reform?

The government clearly thought so around 2012. Michael Gove, who was Education Secretary at the time, announced a series of reforms that were designed to make the exams more “fit for purpose”. This was following an Ofqual report on how suitable the 2012 system of A-Levels had been functioning. Reflecting on where we are in 2020, this discussion on the suitability of A-Levels has raged on. Some are happy with the government’s reforms, whereas others are calling for them to be scrapped entirely, to be replaced with a more rounded form of assessment that also includes skills and personal development.

Such debate has undoubtedly been compounded by the effect of COVID-19 on the education of this current generation of students. Exams have been called off, with predicted grades being used as a substitute. Some students may be relieved with this decision, but I’m sure that many are frustrated that they will not have had the opportunity to put years of study and revision into practice with the aims of going above their current predictions. Predicted A-Level grades can differ from final results by a small or significant margin in exams. Whilst this might not seem like a lot on paper, these small differences can be the difference maker when applying for competitive courses or universities.

Finally, the remark process can feel like a bit of a lottery for students. It’s not uncommon for students to have their results jump by two grades – or more – when requesting a remark of their exams. With this degree of error and/or interpretation for such vital exams, do we need to rethink how markers are being equipped to effectively mark papers, rather than just what is going into them for students to complete? More than 50% have reported being under extensive stress in their role and just 25% believe they’re getting paid proportionally for their work.

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With alternative qualifications becoming increasingly advertised to students (and even UK schools looking to explore alternatives), the future of A-Level study could well be in for another review – especially given the extraordinary measures that have been taken as a result of COVID-19. It will be imperative to monitor, evaluate and most importantly consult the students that have been personally affected by these disruptions.

Many thanks to sponsors for helping produce and collaborate on this article.

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