The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, or A Level, is a main school leaving qualification in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is available as an alternative qualification in other countries.
A Levels require studying an offered A level subject over a two-year period and sitting for an examination at the end of each year (A1/S and A2, respectively), proctored by an official assessment body. Most students study three or four A level subjects simultaneously during the two post-16 years (ages 16–18) in a secondary school, in a sixth form college, in a further and higher education college, or in a tertiary college, as part of their further education.
A Levels are recognised by many universities as the standard for assessing the suitability of applicants for admission in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and many such universities partly base their admissions offers on a student's predicted A-level grades, with the majority of these offers conditional on achieving a minimum set of final grades.
A Levels were introduced in 1951 as a standardised school-leaving qualification, replacing the Higher School Certificate. The examinations could be taken on a subject-by-subject basis, according to the strengths and interests of the student. This encouraged specialization and in-depth study of three to four subjects. The A Level at first was graded as simply distinction, pass or fail (although students were given an indication of their marks, to the nearest 5%), candidates obtaining a distinction originally had the option to sit a Scholarship Level paper on the same material, to attempt to win one of 400 national scholarships. The Scholarship Level was renamed the S-Level in 1963.
Quite soon rising numbers of students taking the A-level examinations required more differentiation of achievement below the S-Level standard. Grades were therefore introduced. Between 1963 and 1986 the grades were norm-referenced:
The O grade was equivalent to a GCE Ordinary Level pass which indicated a performance equivalent to the lowest pass grade at Ordinary Level.
Over time, the validity of this system was questioned because, rather than reflecting a standard, norm referencing simply maintained a specific proportion of candidates at each grade, which in small cohorts was subject to statistical fluctuations in standards. In 1984, the government's Secondary Examinations Council decided to replace the norm referencing with criterion referencing: grades would in future be awarded on examiner judgement thus eliminating a possible inadequacy of the existing scheme.
The criterion referencing scheme came into effect for the summer 1987 exams as the system set examiners specific criteria for the awarding of B and E grades to candidates, and then divided out the other grades according to fixed percentages. Rather than awarding an Ordinary Level for the lowest pass, a new "N" (for Nearly passed) was introduced. Criticisms of A level grading continued, and when Curriculum 2000 was introduced, the decision was made to have specific criteria for each grade, and the 'N' grade was abolished.
In 1989, Advanced Supplementary (AS) awards were introduced; they were intended to broaden the subjects a pupil studied post 16, and were to complement rather than be part of a pupil's A-level studies. AS-Levels were generally taken over two years, and in a subject the pupil was not studying at A-Level. Each AS level contained half the content of an A-Level, and at the same level of difficulty.
Initially, a student might study three subjects at A-Level and one at AS-Level, or often even four subjects at A-Level. However, due to decreasing public spending on education over time, a growing number of schools and sixth form colleges would now arrange for their pupils to study for three A-Levels instead of four.
A levels evolved gradually from a two-year linear course with an exam at the end, to a modular course, between the late 1980s and 2000. By the year 2000 there was a strong educational reason[clarification needed] to standardise the exam and offer greater breadth to students through modules and there was also a pragmatic case based on the inefficiency of linear courses where up to 30% of students were failing to complete or pass.
Curriculum 2000 was introduced in September 2000, with the first new examinations taken in January and June of the following year. The Curriculum 2000 reforms also replaced the S-Level extension paper with the Advanced Extension Award.
The Conservative Party under Prime MinisterDavid Cameron initiated reforms for A Levels to change from the current modular to a linear structure. British Examination Boards (Edexcel, AQA and OCR) regulated and accredited by the government of the United Kingdom responded to the government's reform announcements by modifying specifications of several A Level subjects.
Prior to Government reforms of the A Level system, A-levels consisted of two equally weighted parts: AS (Advanced Subsidiary) Level, assessed in the first year of study, and A2 Level, assessed in the second year of study. Following the reforms, while it is still possible to take the AS Level as a stand-alone qualification, those exams do not count toward the full A Level, for which all exams are taken at the end of the course. An AS course usually comprises two modules, or three for science subjects and Mathematics; full A Level usually comprises four modules, or six for sciences and Mathematics. The modules within each part may have different weights. Modules are either assessed by exam papers marked by national organisations, or in limited cases by school-assessed, externally moderated coursework.
Main article: List of Advanced Level subjects
A wide variety of subjects are offered at A-level by the five exam boards. Although exam boards often alter their curricula, this table shows the majority of subjects which are consistently available for study.
The number of A-level exams taken by students can vary. A typical route is to study four subjects at AS level and then drop down to three at A2 level, although some students continue with their fourth subject. Three is usually the minimum number of A Levels required for university entrance, with some universities specifying the need for a fourth AS subject. There is no limit set on the number of A Levels one can study, and a number of students take five or more A Levels. It is permissible to take A Levels in languages one already speaks fluently, or courses with overlapping content, even if not always fully recognized by universities.
The pass grades for A Levels are, from highest to lowest, A*, A, B, C, D and E. The process to decide these grades involves the uniform mark scheme (UMS). Under this scheme, four-module A levels have a maximum mark of 400 UMS (or 200 UMS each for AS and A2), and six-module A levels have a maximum mark of 600 (or 300 UMS each for AS and A2). The maximum UMS within AS and A2 may be split unequally between each modules. For example, a Physics AS may have two exam modules worth 90 UMS and 150 UMS, and a coursework module worth 60 UMS. The 'raw marks' i.e. actual score received on a test may differ from UMS awarded. On each assignment, the correspondence of raw marks to UMS is decided by setting grade boundaries, a process which involves consultation by subject experts and consideration of statistics, aiming to keep standards for each grade the same year on year. Achieving less than 40% results in a U (unclassified). For passing grades, 40% corresponds to an E grade, 50% a D, 60% a C, 70% a B, and 80% an A. The A* grade was introduced in 2010 and is awarded to candidates who average 80% UMS across all modules, with a score over 90% UMS in all A2 modules. In Mathematics, which comprises six 100 UMS modules, only the C3 and C4 modules count towards this requirement. In Further Mathematics and Additional Further Mathematics, where more than three A2 modules can be taken, the three best-scoring A2 modules count. There is no A* grade at AS level.
Wales and Northern Ireland
Independent critical study: Texts across time
This resource provides guidance on the NEA requirements for A-level English Literature A, and should be read in conjunction with the NEA requirements set out in the specification. It develops and exemplifies the requirements, but is wholly consistent with them. Exemplar student responses accompany this guidance.
Texts across time is the non-exam assessment (NEA) component of our new A-level English Literature A specification. The specification is committed to the notion of autonomous personal reading and Texts across time provides students with the invaluable opportunity to work independently, follow their own interests and to develop their own ideas and meanings. To that end, few restrictions are placed on the student’s freedom to choose their own texts and shape their own task but the following requirements must be met:
- Students write a comparative critical study of two texts on a theme of their choice
- An appropriate academic bibliography must be included
- An academic form of referencing must be used
- The word count is 2,500 words (not including quotations or academic bibliography)
- The task must be worded so that it gives access to all five assessment objectives (AOs)
- One text must have been written pre-1900
- Two different authors must be studied
- Equal attention must be paid to each text
- A-level core set texts and chosen comparative set texts listed for study in either Love through the ages or in Texts in shared contexts cannot be used for NEA
- Texts in translation, that have been influential and significant in the development of literature in English, can be used
- Poetry texts must be as substantial as a novel or a play. A poetry text could be either one longer narrative poem or a single authored collection of shorter poems. A discrete Chaucer Tale would be suitable as a text for study, as would a poem such as The Rape of the Lock. If students are using a collection of short poems, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two poems to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection
- Single authored collections of short stories are permissible. If students are using a collection of short stories, they must have studied the whole text and select at least two stories to write about in detail as examples of the wider collection.
Managing the NEA
The introduction to NEA should provide students with a detailed review of the above requirements and guidance on what it means to work independently (e.g. productive research skills, effective time management). The point at which students begin their NEA preparation will depend on individual school and college decisions. Schools and colleges may aim to introduce the NEA in the first year of the course. An appropriate opportunity would be the six weeks which follow the completion of AS examinations but other opportunities will be available, especially where schools and colleges are not entering their students for AS.
Approaching the NEA
Schools and colleges will differ in how they approach NEA and this may be dependent upon whether:
- Students all choose individual texts and tasks for their NEA
- One text is taught to the whole cohort and the second text is individually chosen
- AS and A-level students are co-taught and an AS only prose text (The Mill on the Floss/The Rotters’ Club) is studied for NEA with the second text individually chosen.
These approaches are equally valid and take account of the different contexts in which schools and colleges will be working. What is important is that each approach recognises that a degree of autonomy in student text and task choice is required. Ideally a range of differentiated texts and tasks will be seen across a submission for this component. That said, students will choose their texts and shape their tasks with your support (and you will be supported by your NEA advisor) and the following offers you some guidance on how to help your students make these choices.
Advice on text choice
Connecting two texts on a common theme means choosing two texts which maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences. Whilst the only date requirement is that one text must be written pre-1900, the component title 'Texts across time' indicates that effective comparison and contrast occurs when the same theme is explored in two texts separated by a significant period of time; here the different contexts of production will inform the similarities and differences in approach taken by the writers to the chosen theme and students will have encountered this diachronic approach in component 1, Love through the ages. This is particularly pertinent if students choose two texts from the same genre (poetry, prose, drama). If, however, students are interested in writing about a theme within a clearly defined time period, it is advisable to consider how the study of texts from different genres will open up discussion of similarities and differences. Students will encounter this synchronic approach in component 2: Texts in shared contexts, and exemplar student response A is an excellent example of the successful connection of a prose and drama text, written within twenty five years of each other, from the Victorian period.
When supporting students with their choice of texts, therefore, the following guidance is useful:
- both texts should be of sufficient weight and of suitable ‘quality’ for A-level study; the set text lists for the examined components help to exemplify what is meant by a substantial text, particularly in relation to selecting an appropriate amount of poetry for a poetry ‘text’. Remember, however, that the A-level set texts cannot be used in NEA
- texts chosen for study must maximise opportunities for writing about both similarities and differences
- texts must allow access to a range of critical views and interpretations, including over time, which students can evaluate and apply autonomously. Secondary sources, relevant to the texts, can include film and stage productions, books and articles; an example of an appropriate bibliography accompanies the exemplar student responses
- once texts are identified, which both address the student’s chosen theme, a more defined focus for the essay is needed; this may arise, for example, from similarities and differences in genre (poetry, prose, drama), type (e.g. gothic fiction), contexts (e.g. of production and reception), authorial method (e.g. narrative structure or point of view), theoretical perspective (e.g. feminism). Exemplar student response A is a good example of how the wider theme of the role of women in the nineteenth-century has been more clearly defined in the focus on two specific relationships and the inclusion of a clear viewpoint – that ‘the personal is political’ – for consideration.
If students are struggling to identify a thematic topic area of interest to them, or texts for study, the specification offers suggestions of themes (page 20) and, as at least one of the texts must have been written pre-1900, of pre-1900 texts (pages 21-22). This is by no means an exhaustive list and it should be emphasised that students are free to develop their own interests from their independent reading. The exemplar NEA responses, however, show how these suggestions might be taken as a starting point and then developed with a more clearly defined focus. Other such combinations to consider as a starting point might include:
- representations of men in Vanity Fair and A Doll’s House
- the gothic in Northanger Abbey and Keats’ poems (‘Lamia’, 'Isabella or The Pot of Basil’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’)
- representations of social class and culture in Middlemarch and She Stoops to Conquer
- satire and dystopia in Frankenstein and The School for Scandal
- representations of women in The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’
Clearly the texts mentioned may be interchangeable with other texts suggested in the specification or indeed with the student’s own choice of texts (which may include one post-1900 text); the broad themes will undoubtedly be interchangeable with others and will need to be refined to identify a more clearly defined comparative focus. What these suggestions provide, therefore, is a way for students to begin thinking about the NEA and student autonomy should always be encouraged.
Advice on task choice
We encourage schools and colleges to check individual students’ essay titles with their AQA NEA adviser before students embark on their research, especially where there may be some uncertainty about the appropriateness of texts or the approach being taken.
What is clear, given that the NEA assesses all five assessment objectives (AOs), is that the task must allow access to them all. Students should be familiar with this concept by the time they approach the NEA as all AOs are tested in all questions in the examined components 1 and 2. Exemplar student response A is a good example of how access to all AOs is enabled by the task and the moderator commentary explains how the AOs have been addressed by the student. It is worth considering how key terms in the task wording enable different AOs to be accessed:
Compare and contrast the ways in which Elizabeth Gaskell and Henrik Ibsen present the relationships between Margaret Hale and John Thornton in North and South (1854-55) and Nora and Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House (1879).
Examine the view that in both texts, ‘the personal is political’.
AO1: Articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression.
The use of the command words ‘compare and contrast’ invites the student to organise her response around relevant similarities and differences in the presentation of relationships in the chosen texts. In doing so, she will express her ideas using appropriate terminology.
AO2: Analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts.
The key word ‘present’ explicitly invites the student to write about the different genres of her chosen texts and, together with ‘the ways in which’, signals the need to discuss a range of authorial methods involved.
AO3: Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
The focus on specific relationships and on the concept of ‘the personal as political’ engages with how literary representations thereof can reflect social, cultural and historical aspects of the time period in which these texts were written.
AO4: Explore connections across literary texts.
The command words ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ instruct the student to make connections between the texts in terms of subject matter and authorial method.
AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.
The directive to ‘examine’ a clear viewpoint - that ‘the personal is political’ - signals the need to debate this given opinion and so to engage with multiple readings and interpretations.
Advice on writing the essay
Having completed the study of their chosen texts, researched secondary sources and devised an appropriate task, students will need guidance on how to pull their ideas together into a coherent response. Here again, exemplar student response A offers an excellent example of how to structure a sophisticated argument and the moderator commentary explains how this student achieves this. Some key points to note are:
- this is a connective task and so students should be prepared to make connections between their texts in terms of similarity and difference throughout the response; students should make the connections they wish to explore from a range including authorial method, context, genre and critical theory
- contexts and critical views should not be bolted on but instead should be woven through the response, evaluated as a way of reading the primary texts and then used as a stepping-stone into the development of an interesting and persuasive personal overview
- well-selected, concise quotations should be embedded and adapted to the student’s own syntax and required meaning
- a bibliography and academic referencing are required to indicate the secondary sources used by the student during the writing of their essay. AQA does not insist on a particular form of referencing but following the example given in the exemplar student responses would be appropriate.
Supervising and authenticating students' work
The role and responsibilities of the teacher in supervising and authenticating students’ work are set out in Section 6.1 of the specification. It is worthwhile emphasising that the teacher must confirm that each essay submitted is the work of the individual student. The JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) document Instructions for conducting coursework provides further guidance about the level of support and guidance that is appropriate for teachers to provide to students. In accordance with JCQ guidance, the following support would not be acceptable:
- having reviewed the candidate’s work, giving detailed advice and suggestions as to how the work may be improved in order to meet the assessment criteria
- giving detailed indications of errors or omissions which leave the candidate no opportunity for individual initiative
- giving advice on specific improvements needed to meet the assessment criteria
- providing writing frames specific to the task (e.g. outlines, paragraph headings or section headings)
- intervening personally to improve the presentation or content of the work.
The role and responsibilities of teachers in submitting marks are set out in Section 6.6 of the specification. Please note that a mark out of 50 is required. This means that the mark you award against the assessment criteria, which will be out of 25, needs to be doubled when entering on the Candidate record form, before submitting marks to AQA.