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

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  • It can be tricky to keep up with all the changes that have been made to Secondary school exams. That's why we've decided to put together a parents guide to AS and A Levels to help you understand the exam process a little bit better...

    After your child’s GCSE examinations in Year 11, they may want to stay at school or go to college to complete their AS and A levels.

    In 2015 the government announced that there would be some changes made to the way teens complete their AS and A levels, so it’s important to know how these reforms could affect your child and what it will mean for their grades at the end of their studies.

    Our quick insider’s guide to AS and A levels will run you over the basics of how they work so you can be ready to help your teen through their choices.

    READ MORE: What to expect on GCSE and A-level results day this year 2020: How to appeal your results, apply to university through clearing and what to do next 

    What are AS and A levels?

    The majority of students complete their A levels between the age of 16-18 in order 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 were changed in 2000 to be GCE A levels, splitting 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 if they choose to leave school. 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.

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    What do the new government reforms mean for AS and A levels?

    The old system saw teens study AS levels in Year 12, with exams taken in May-June that are worth 50% of your overall A level qualification. This is the part that’s changed.

    In 2015 the government revealed that changes would be made to how AS and A levels are graded. The new reforms mean that AS levels will no longer count towards your child’s qualification and instead, they’ll face more exams at the end of Year 13. The AS level can stand as a separate qualification but not if they choose to complete an A level in the subject.

    So for subjects taken under the new system, all A level exams will take place at the end of Year 13, with no marks from AS levels contributing to the overall final grade.

    Across the board, students can also expect less coursework and fewer practical assessments (in Wales, practicals will still count in biology, chemistry and physics A level) – making exam revision even more important. Grades will continue to be awarded on an A*-E scale.

    AS levels will still exist, and you can continue to take a separate AS level qualification at the end of Year 12 before dropping the subject or going on to take the full A level in Year 13 – but unlike before, your AS results won’t count towards your A level grade.

    The website sets out the main features of the new qualifications:

    • Assessment will be mainly by exam, with other types of assessment used only where they are needed to test essential skills
    • AS and A levels will be assessed at the end of the course. AS assessments will typically take place after one year’s study and A levels after two. The courses will no longer be divided into modules and there will be no exams in January
    • AS and A levels will be decoupled – meaning AS results will no longer count towards an A level
    • AS levels can be designed by exam boards to be taught alongside the first year of A levels
    • The content for the new A levels has been reviewed and updated. Universities played a greater role in this for the new qualifications than they did previously

    How are A levels graded?

    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.

    What work do you have to do for an A level?

    They are mainly assessed through written exams and sometimes coursework, which 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.

    What subjects can be studied?

    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.

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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, 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 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.

    How do I help my child gain the best exam results?

    Support during A levels is key. Remember to keep in mind that your child can only do their best. Pressurising them is not the way to achieve high marks.

    An NSPCC spokesperson said, ‘The wait for exam results can be stressful for children but encouraging them to talk about their worries can help them feel calmer and less anxious.

    ‘Try not to place unnecessary pressure on your child to gain certain grades and if they are disappointed with their results let them know you are there to support them. Whatever results they get they will have a lot to think about and it’s important to remind your child not to panic and that there are always options available.

    ‘Encourage them to take their time to think about what they’d like to do, help them write down the pros and cons of every option and make sure they don’t rush into a decision. If they find it hard to talk to you perhaps they can speak to another family member or teacher, and they can always contact Childline 24/7 for advice and support.’

    It’s also important to remember that they can appeal their results in many instances, sit exams later in the autumn or go through clearing after results day.

    Remember, it’s still as important to praise a 17-year-old as a seven-year-old! Telling them you’re really proud when they do well and reinforcing they can achieve a good grade may help them feel more positive and realise failure is not inevitable.