In Scotland, students usually take Highers and Advanced Highers of the Scottish Qualifications Certificate. However, a small minority of schools offer the A-level as an alternative, typically private schools.
A-levels are also taken in some Commonwealth countries and Ex British Territories, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Commonwealth Caribbean, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Gibraltar, Brunei, New Zealand, Malta, Zambia, South Africa and India. Due to respective changes in the systems, these examinations differ both in terms of content and style from the A-levels taken in the United Kingdom. The most extreme case is observed in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong A-levels (HKAL) maintained a high standard while the British A-level is accused of grade inflation, and over time became more and stricter compared to its British counterpart, as shown by NARIC research. The British GCE A-levels are taken all around the world, as many international schools choose to use the British system as the examinations are widely recognised. Furthermore, students may choose to sit the papers of British examination bodies at education centres such as British Councils around the world.
A-levels were first introduced in 1951, replacing the previous award, the Higher School Certificate (HSC).
In 1997, Advanced Supplementary levels (abbreviated as AS-level or A/S-level) — worth half of a full A-level — were introduced to encourage students to broaden their knowledge of other areas. These were of the same academic standard of a full A-level (i.e. the topics were studied in the same amount of depth), but covered a narrower range of topics.
The most recent changes to A-levels began in 2000, when the government introduced Curriculum 2000 which split the A-level into two parts, the AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A2 examinations. The former is generally taken in Year 12 (Year 13 in Northern Ireland) also known as "lower sixth" and the latter is generally taken in Year 13 (Year 14 in Northern Ireland) which is also known as "upper sixth". Satisfactory achievement in AS and A2 modules results in the award of an A-level qualification. It is possible to sit only AS modules in which case only an AS-level qualification would be gained, this is given half the number of points of a full A-level on the UCAS tariff points system. Advanced Subsidiary levels, although replacing and sharing the same abbreviation as the previous Advanced Supplementary levels, are not the same. The current AS-levels are still worth half of a full A-level, but, contrary to the old AS-levels, cover the same breadth of the subject but in less depth. The old AS-levels were also not a prerequisite for the corresponding A-level and were examined separately (as the modular system had not been introduced at the time).
While A-levels are a qualification in their own right, they are often the prerequisite for university-level study as well, making them a de facto university entrance examination, though some universities also require applicants to take separate entrance examinations and the International Baccalaureate and European Baccalaureate are also accepted. Universities in the United Kingdom frequently demand that applicants achieve a minimum set of grades in A-level examinations, or the equivalent in other examination systems, before accepting them. While the government has rejected plans to introduce an English Baccalaureate modelled on the International Baccalaureate, it has introduced a Welsh Baccalaureate studies in Wales, based on the French Baccalaureate; but it has yet to be introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom despite favourable comments by the Welsh Assembly to the British Government.
In the current system, A-levels are graded from A to E. The raw mark in papers are converted to marks on a Uniform Mark Scale (UMS), so that every A-level subject has a maximum of 600 UMS marks, and every AS-level subject 300. Each grade requires a specific percentage of the UMS points available in both the A- and AS-levels:
|A* (available from 2009)||80%+, plus 90%+ in A2 units|
|B||70% - 79%|
|C||60% - 69%|
|D||50% - 59%|
|E||40% - 49%|
Research from Durham University found A-levels were graded "more severely" in mathematics, sciences and modern languages than in humanities and arts. Researchers called for applicants' results to be "weighed" when being offered places. Dr. Robert Coe, director of the educational evaluation group at Durham's curriculum, management and evaluation centre, said: "It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others. Dr. Coe and Prof. Peter Tymms's study found that students with a grade B at GCSE in History, Economics, Geography, English Language and Literature, Sociology and Business Studies went on to score a grade C on average in those subjects at A-level. But those with a grade B at GCSE in Maths, Computing, German, French, Chemistry, Physics and Biology were more likely to score a grade D at A-level. Dr. Coe said students avoid hard subjects at A-level in favour of ones where they had more chance of getting top grades.
Compared with the curricula of high schools in the United States, the A-level system provides more depth into the subjects being studied - and often A-levels can be used as points that count towards their degree. However, the A-level has been criticised for providing less breadth since many A-level students do not generally study more than 3 subjects in their final year. A major part of this criticism is that, while a 3 or 4 subject curriculum can be balanced across the spectrum (e.g., students may choose one science subject, a language subject, and a "creative" subject like Music), in many cases students choose three closely-linked subjects, for instance, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry or Sociology, Psychology and Politics. This is in part due to university entrance requirements, which, for degree programs such as medicine, may require three related A-level subjects. Thus, while the purpose of Curriculum 2000 was to encourage students to undertake contrasting subjects, to broaden their 'skill-base', there is a tendency to pursue similar disciplines. However, others disagree, arguing that the additional AS-level(s) studied would already have provided more breadth compared with the old system. The A-levels' breadth also pale in comparison to the International Baccalaureate, which examines in six subjects, or the European Baccalaureate, which examines in at least 10 subjects.
Following the introduction of Curriculum 2000 in September 2000 (with the first AS-level examinations held in Summer 2001 and A2 examinations the following year), an A-level now consists of six modules studied over two years. Normally, three modules are assessed at the end of the first year, and make up a stand-alone qualification called the "AS-level" (or Advanced Subsidiary level, not to be confused with an older AS-level, the Advanced Supplementary level). Another three modules are assessed at the end of the second year, which make up the "A2". A2 modules do not form a qualification in their own right; the satisfactory completion of the AS and A2 modules in the same subject is required to constitute a complete A-level. Modules are assessed by exam papers marked by national organisations and internally-assessed coursework.
The introduction of the new GCE Applied A-level suite, taken from the old VCE A-levels, generally have a more vocational twist to them. For example, the new GCE A-level in Applied Business combines the traditional theory based subject 'Business Studies' (which can be studied as an A-level itself) and adds a more practical and hands-on approach to it. In this case, for the mandatory modules in the AS year, the candidate is expected to create a simulated Marketing Proposal (module 1) and Recruitment and motivational package (module 2) as opposed to just studying the processes. This essentially asks the candidate to show a more thorough insight by actually applying the theory. Given that many universities have shown a dislike to vocational subjects as opposed to the traditional ones, their reaction to the new applied suite remains to be seen. However, considering the subject is now much broader and more 'student-friendly' it is hoped that universities will see that this subject is no less than the traditional Business Studies given that the traditional aspect of the subject is not fully lost. The new GCE Applied A-levels are available in: Art and Design; ICT; Business and Science.
Because most students taking their ASs had just come from their GCSEs and know that they have their A2s the following year many are disheartened and don't feel 'bothered' to sit down and study for these exams. Many would prefer to have the older VCE system back so that they have, like in GCSE, two years to complete their courses and study for their exams. Exam stress usually takes place in around March or April when they realise they have a month or two until their exams. This builds pressure on the students and can lead to them not doing so well in their examinations.
In the UK it is customary for schools to register with multiple examination boards and to 'mix and match' A-levels to get a combined curriculum that fits the school profile. Schools outside the UK are often unaware that registration with one examination board generally makes registration with them all a 'pro forma' exercise, all A-levels in the British system, being considered exactly equivalent.
Universities in Britain have constantly complained that the increasing number of A grades awarded makes it hard to distinguish between students at the upper end of the ability spectrum. The C grade was originally intended to represent the average ability, and students typically required 60% or higher across all assessments to attain it; however, the average result is now at the lower end of the B grade, rendering this measure almost meaningless. Thus, many universities now have their own entrance tests such as the BMAT and LNAT for specific courses or interviews to distinguish between applicants. In 2005, the head of admissions at the University of Cambridge outlined changes he believed should be made to the current system, particularly the use of the Advanced Extension Awards, a top-up qualification that tests the most-able students some of the harder content in their A-level courses. More universities have wanted to see applicants' individual module results to see how comfortably they have achieved their result. There are fears that the A-level may not offer an accurate test of ability, nor will it be a good prediction of future academic success.
Concern over A-level grading became national news in September 2002. The Observer newspaper ran a story making claims that A-level results had been fixed. It was alleged that students had been given lower marks than they deserved in order to fix overall results, making the pass rate seem lower than it really should have been and so disproving that A-levels were becoming too easy. This resulted in the Tomlinson Inquiry. As a result, some papers were re-marked but only 1,220 A-level and 733 AS-level students saw an improvement to their results.
In response to concerns shown by employers and universities that it is not possible to distinguish between the large number of students achieving A grades, and in order to mirror the current GCSE standards, a debate arose in 2004 as to whether a new, higher "super A" grade (like the A* grade at GCSE) should be attainable. Although it has not yet been put into place, it was generally agreed that bringing in higher grades would be a much better idea than raising the grade boundaries to keep the standards consistent, and it has been proposed that A* and A** grades be attainable at A-level in order to stretch the most able students while still allowing others to achieve the grades they deserve. The Advanced Extension Award has been increasingly used to serve this purpose. From 2008, the highest A-level grade will be A*, requiring an A grade overall and 90% SMS ('Standardised Mark Scheme' will replace the 'Uniform Mark Scheme' ) in A2 papers.
The September 2004 reformation of the Mathematics syllabus, following calls that it was too hard, has attracted criticism for allegedly being made easier. In the change, content consisting of three modules (Pure 1-3) were spread to four modules (Core 1-4). It is alleged that this makes the course easier as students do less work for the same qualifications. Further reforms to make the Mathematics syllabus more popular have been met with mixed opinions. Supporters cite it will reverse the downward trend in students taking the subject whilst others are concerned that the subject is being "dumbed down".
Following criticisms from many groups on the "burden of assessment", from September 2008 onwards, candidates will take four papers for most A-levels, instead of the current six. This will mean that there will be two modules for AS and two more for A2 for the majority of A-levels, and that their UMS will total 200 for AS and 400 for the whole A-level (rather than 300 and 600 as is the case now). However, this will not be the case for all A-levels: Biology, Human Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics, Geology, Music and Science will continue with six units, three units for AS and A2 respectively, and 600 SMS for the A-level. Mathematics (including Further Mathematics, Additional Further Mathematics, Statistics, and the Use of Mathematics AS), will not change structurally in the 2008 reform; it will stay on 600 SMS (300 SMS for AS), but it will include the new A* grade and the 'Stretch and Challenge' provision. Also, Bengali, Modern Hebrew, Punjabi, 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 . However they will move to 200 SMS for A-level. Chinese will also move to 200 SMS, but instead of two units, it 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 .
A possible reformation would be something called the post-qualifications applications system (PQA), where applicants apply to university after they receive their results. It has been argued that this would be fairer to applicants, especially those from lower-income families whose results were thought to be under-predicted. However, a more recent UCAS report shows that although the reliability of predicted grades declines in step with family income, in general this leads to an over-prediction effect for lower income groups. Moreover, even though just 45% of predicted grades are accurate - 47% being over-predictions, 9% under-predictions — UCAS found "only weak and negative evidence of a systematic relationship between an individual's chances of being accepted at a Higher Education Institution and their examination grades being over predicted". Education ministers have said that PQA will be implemented by 2012.
Harrow has warned that it will ditch A-levels if they are dumbed down further. They are considering moving to a new exam (to be called Pre-U) being developed by private schools in conjunction with Cambridge University's exam board.
Cambridge University has warned that it is extremely unlikely that it will be accepting applicants who are taking two or more supposedly 'softer' A Level subjects. It has outlined a list of subjects it considers to be 'unsuitable', which includes Accounting, Design and technology, Film studies, Information and Communication Technology, Media studies, Photography, and Sports studies.
As a result of dislike of the modular system, many schools now offer the alternative International Baccalaureate Diploma qualification. The course offers more subjects, extracurricular activity, a philosophical epistemological component known as "Theory of Knowledge", as well as the requirement of an extended essay on any subject of a candidate's choice. Unlike the current AS/A2 system, the International Baccalaureate is not based on a modular system.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently suggested that one state school in every county should offer the Baccalaureate as an alternative to A-levels.