In the UK most students take GCSE or IGCSE exams aged 16 or 17. After this they may stay on at school for two years for the sixth form. In the sixth form students study A levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB); these are the qualifications taken to apply for university. A university offer will be based on the grades achieved at A level of the IB
How does the A level system work?
An A level is an Advanced Level qualification. The overwhelmingly majority of schools in the UK offer A levels. At the moment an A level is made up of two parts-the first year exams called AS and the second year exams called A2. The combination of points achieved at AS and A2 determine the A level grade. However the system will start changing next year when students will be examined at the end of the two years rather than in two parts. These new “reformed” A levels are being introduced gradually- some subjects start the new system in 2015, some in 2016 and some in 2017. Most students study 4 subjects in the first year and then continue with their strongest three in the second year i.e. they end up with 3 A level subjects. One of the values of the A level system is the depth of study- this provides an excellent preparation for the demands and complexity of university study and many university courses would have been developed to build on A level study. Another major benefit is the ability to choose the subjects you really enjoy and are interested in; you can choose subjects in any combination (although some schools may have restrictions on options and combinations).
At d’Overbroeck’s, in Oxford, for example, we offer 35 subjects and students can choose any combination that they wish and that is appropriate for their later degrees and careers. Naturally we provide detailed guidance on the right subjects to choose based on the individual and their university and career aspirations. Students may specialize in sciences, for example if they know they want to study Medicine or they may specialize in the creative arts if they know this is the field they want to pursue (we have students studying at the New York Film academy and on dance scholarships in the US for example). Equally students can have a combination of subjects developing different skills. The flexibility and choice is incredible for example subjects range from business to computing to drama to science to sociology to film to communication to psychology to philosophy to photography to politics. The end results is that students are likely to be passionate about their subjects because they can focus on the ones they want and not study ones that are less interesting or less relevant to them.
How does the IB work?
The IB differs from A levels in that students study 6 subjects- 3 at what is known as standard level and 3 at higher level. Some commentators say the IB provides more breadth but less depth. The combination of subjects is determined to some extent in that all students must study:
- A first language
- A second language
- A science (biology, chemistry, physics, design technology)
- Mathematics and computer science
- The arts(visual, theatre and music)
- Individuals and society (history, psychology and geography)
As well as this students will study the Theory of Knowledge and take part in Creativity Action and Service and write an extended essay (the equivalents of these can also be taken as part of an A level programme; for example many of our students take an Extended Project Qualification which is a very valuable independent research study) Each of the six subjects in the IB taken is marked out of 7 (maximum of 42 points). Students can gain up to 3 extra points for their extended essay and the TOK elements of the IB.
Both A levels and IB are valuable qualifications and both systems are aiming to develop your knowledge and understanding and your ability to think analytically and critically and to study and research. Both are good preparations for university. In all good schools you will have the opportunity to develop your interests and be stretched academically. However you may want to consider if there are particular areas you want specialize in- subjects that you really want to consider in depth and if there are types of subjects you would prefer not to do. For example, if you are not particularly enthusiastic about science then at A level you can avoid these subjects; equally if you know that science is what you want to study then at A level you could take Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths!
If you would like further information on the A level system we have been closely involved in the reforms that are happening and would be happy to give advice.