TSR Wiki > Study Help > Exams and Qualifications > A Levels

Practical Information and Advice on A-levels. (A little out of date.)


How A Levels Work

The A-level, or Advanced Level, is a well respected qualification worldwide, generally taken in the final two years of secondary education, normally in a school Sixth Form or a college. Since 2001, the A-level has been split up into two parts: the AS and A2 examinations, generally taken in lower sixth (year 12, or year 13 in England) and upper sixth (year 13, or year 14 in Northern Ireland) respectively.

Modular format

Currently, most A-levels are split into four modules, generally with two being taken at the end of lower sixth (the AS modules) and two at the end of upper sixth (the A2 modules). However, Maths, Biology, Human Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics, Geology, Music and Science are currently continuing with six modules. A module usually consists of an examination or an assessed practical, though in many subjects, a module is actually a combination of the two. All modules are weighted equally or similarly, in contrast to the current GCSE format, where up to 80% of one qualification can rest on one exam. The modular system also makes examinations generally shorter, though up to 6 hours' worth of exams may be taken in one day, and consequently in some subjects (e.g. biology, chemistry, economics, Latin, physics) three one-hour modules are intentionally timetabled simultaneously, so that they must be taken consecutively, which lasts three hours.

Note that many new A level syllabi are now composed of 4 modules, with 2 units making up the AS and 2 units making up the A2.

Note that, due to this modular format, three AS modules can be "cashed-in" for an AS qualification in their own right. As A2 modules are generally accepted to be harder than AS modules, there is no such thing as an A2 qualification; three A2 modules without the AS modules cannot be "cashed-in" for a qualification.

UMS and grading

UMS, or the Uniform Marking Scheme, is a system put in place to ensure fair distribution of marks throughout the modules when they are sat in different sessions. Raw marks are converted to UMS marks according to the difficulty of the paper; that is, for relatively difficult papers, where most candidates are likely to have achieved a low raw mark, marks will be scaled up slightly to ensure that candidates get the grade they deserve. However, raw marks are not converted to UMS by means of a simple scale factor, and it is therefore very unlikely that the same conversion will be used from one year to the next. Consequently, it is difficult to predict the conversion method that will be used for any one particular exam.

UMS also ensures fair distribution of grades throughout the various modules, subjects and exam boards. The total UMS mark for one A-level is given out of 600, and the grades are then decided according to the following table.

GradeA-level UMS mark /600AS-level UMS mark /300Module UMS mark /100Percentage UMS required

Each module is currently graded with one of the passing grades A (highest) to E (lowest), or with the failing grade U (unclassified). Bear in mind that the module mark may be put of 300, 180, 120, 105, 100 (as illustrated), or 90, depending on the weighting of the unit in the A-level. See the UMS page for further details.

The A-level has had an A* grade, since 2008 (for first award in Summer 2010), which is awarded as an A in the overall A-level and 90% in the aggregate of the A2 units (or in the aggregate in C3 and C4 for A-level Maths). Also, there will be changes to the UMS from 2008 onwards. Most subjects will move from 600 to 400 UMS for the A-level, and from 300 to 200 UMS for the AS (all the four-unit A-levels will make this shift), but those subjects staying at six units (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics, Geology, Human Biology, Science, Music, Mathematics/Further Maths/Further Maths Additional) will stay as 600 UMS for the A-level, 300 UMS for AS (which also applies to AS Use of Maths). The two-unit and three-unit specifications (Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Polish, Arabic, Japanese, Modern Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Dutch, Gujarati, Persian, Portuguese, and Turkish are two-unit; Chinese is three-unit) will all move to 200 UMS for the A-level, 100 UMS for the AS. This means that for different subjects, the score for each overall grade may differ depending on the number of units (the AS grade boundaries are half of the appropriate A-level ones):

Grade 6-unit A-level UMS mark /600 4-unit A-level UMS mark /400 2-unit & 3-unit A-level UMS mark /200
A 480 320 160
B 420 280 140
C 360 240 120
D 300 200 100
E 240 160 80
U 0 0 0

See A-star grades at A-level for further information about the new A* grade.

Criticisms of the A Level

The average grades achieved by A Level candidates have been rising for years, which is often cited as evidence of grade inflation due to lowering standards, or 'dumbing down' of the A Level modules. An example of this is the reform made in September 2004 to the mathematics specification, spreading out the content of the three mathematics modules P1, P2 and P3 into four new modules, C1, C2, C3 and C4 (see more 1, 2). However, the government maintains that this reform was made as the mathematics specification was too difficult for candidates, and moreover that the grade inflation is not due to lowering standards, but to the general improvement of candidates' abilities. This has led to the criticism that many candidates are simply being taught 'exam technique' rather than gaining a true understanding of their subject, and consequently many candidates who achieve high grades at A Level will not have the required skill to continue to university. This is why the A-levels have a poor reputation outside of the UK. There is a debate as to whether or not they should be replaced by the International Baccalaureate.

Consequently, many universities have complained that they now find it difficult to distinguish between candidates with an excellent grasp of their subject and candidates who simply practised 'exam technique' and attained the same grade. The AEAs (Advanced Extension Awards) are therefore often very useful for a university applicant, as they are designed to be accessible only for those achieving good passes at A Level with a firm understanding of their subject, and the examinations are much less predictable. Cambridge, and occasionally Warwick, additionally use STEP (Sixth Term Examination Papers) in judging the ability of mathematics applicants. Examinations such as LNAT and BMAT are often used to judge the ability of law and medicine applicants respectively. All of these examinations are separate from A Levels.

Future plans for the A Level

From September 2008, the government will be introducing a number of changes to the ways A Levels work. In 2004, 3.5% of candidates achieved three or more A grades at A Level. Consequently, from 2008, A Level examinations will include AEA-style questions designed to stretch the strongest candidates and allow universities to differentiate between the strongest candidates under the Stretch and Challenge scheme. An Extended Project will also be introduced, designed to be undertaken instead of a fourth or fifth AS Level, which will have similarities to the IB extended essay and will require persistence and strong independent research skills. The projects completed will differ by subject. This project will also be made available on BTEC Nationals and some Diploma lines. Additionally, schools and colleges may, in the future, be allowed to offer Higher Education modules to A Level students.

As of 2008, there will be four A Level units (two for AS, another two for A2) per subject, not six; and each will be only one assessment, as opposed to the current system, where some units are assessed on the basis of more than one exam. These larger units will cover the same amount of content but, it is hoped, will reduce the exam burden by one third, and will reduce costs and exam timetabling difficulties. This change, however, will be introduced gradually, as this structure is not expected to be appropriate in every subject: Biology, Human Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics, Geology, Music, Science and Mathematics (including Further Maths, Additional Further Maths, Statistics, and Use of Maths AS) will continue with six units, three units for AS and A2 respectively. Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Polish, Arabic, Japanese, Modern Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Dutch, Gujarati, Persian, Portuguese, and Turkish will remain at two units, one for AS and one for A2. Chinese will move to three units: AS will have two units, A2 will have one. It is the first A Level to have an odd number of units since Curriculum 2000. There are also plans to balance the AS and A2 content more, and address some very similar syllabuses, such as ICT and computing, which are two separate subjects but which currently have the same subject criteria. Subjects such as ICT will also take into account recent developments in this field.

Universities will be given more information about a candidate's achievement at A Level; not only the subject grade, but also the individual unit grades will be made available to the university, allowing them to differentiate between "straight A" candidates more fairly where necessary. All Higher Education institutions now have access to a candidate's unit grades through UCAS and, where specifically requested (e.g. University of Cambridge, students' UMS scores will also be provided. There is also a reform towards producing an Post-Qualification Application (PQA) system, where students apply to university after they receive their A Level results, although that is still a long way off in the future.

The grading system will change slightly with the introduction of the A* grade in September 2008. Instead of being 90% of the UMS (as might be expected, with C at 60%, B = 70%, A = 80%), the A* border will be 80% overall with 90% on the aggregate of the more challenging A2 units only (which does make possible the situation that UMS for an overall A* might be less than the A although it is a higher grade). It is thus not possible to get an A* on the AS nor on individual units (even individual A2 units), only on a full A Level. The actual amount of UMS will change: the amount of UMS available will change from 600 to 400 for a full A Level (and down from 300 to 200 for each of the AS and A2), for all the new four-unit A Levels. As for the two-unit A Levels and the three-unit A Level, there will be a move from 600 UMS to 200 UMS (300 to 100 UMS for the AS). The A Levels remaining at six-units will remain at 600 UMS for the A Level. See A-star grades at A-level for further information about the new A* grade.

From September 2015-2016, A Levels will be facing a big shake-up as decided by the Conservatives. The new A Levels will no longer be modular, so AS + A2 will not = A Level, AS will be a standalone qualification in its own right - it will assess everything you learnt in the first year. Instead of A2 exams, there will be a whole A Level exam which will be sat in the second year. It will assess everything taught in both Year 12 and 13 (13 and 14 in Northern Ireland) and in the first year, the A level curriculum will be co-taught with the AS Curriculum. However, some A Levels will be following this format from September 2015, while the rest will delay the reforms until September 2016. The A Levels being reformed from 2015 are English Literature, English Language, English Language and Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History, Art and Design, Business, Economics, Psychology, Sociology and Computer Science. The rest will be reformed the following year. This will mean A Levels are an even bigger step up from GCSE's and as such students need to think twice about this before making decisions.

Stretch and Challenge

This term refers to the new provision by the QCA to add extension material for the top candidates at A Level. Initially it was a vague term that was unclear during the A Level's development: did it refer to a separate paper like the AEA, or to an optional extension question? What was finally decided was that the Stretch and Challenge would be introduced within compulsory questions: more extended writing questions, fewer structured questions, bringing AEA-type questions into A Level.

A Level Examining Boards

A Levels are offered by the following awarding bodies:

  • AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance)
  • CCEA (Council for the Curriculum Examinations & Assessment)
  • OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations)
  • WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee)
  • CIE (Cambridge International Examinations)

A Level Subjects

A Levels are available in a huge number of subjects, most to the full A2 stage, but some only to the AS stage. Many subjects are also classified as 'Applied' A Levels. Why not take a look through the full list of available subjects, or see our subject guides, currently in progress.

A Level Revision Notes

Visit the A Level section of our revision notes library to find notes and help when revising for your exams.

Results Day

Worry over what your results are can be bad enough, so make sure you are prepared for the next steps, no matter how your results turn out!

  • After results day - what do your results mean? What are your options? What does this mean for your University Application? Get all your results day help here.
  • Declining and Resitting - a short piece on declining results and resitting exams.
  • Cashed in - are your results cashed in? Find out what this term means.

Other Links

A-Level Alternatives

Wiki Pages

Useful Threads

Try Learn together, TSR's study area

revision notes




a study planner

of discussions

Today on TSR
Does your body insecurities make you avoid PE or exercise?
Study resources

The Student Room, Get Revising and Marked by Teachers are trading names of The Student Room Group Ltd.

Register Number: 04666380 (England and Wales), VAT No. 806 8067 22 Registered Office: International House, Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3XE