OCR Introduction to A Level and History of A Level Exam

The GCE Advanced Level, commonly referred to as the A-level, is a qualification offered by educational institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The qualification is also offered throughout the Commonwealth, and on most Caribbean islands, though A-level examinations in these countries generally differ, both in content and style, from the A-levels taken in the United Kingdom, due to variations in their educational systems. The A-level is also offered by a small number of educational institutions in Scotland (where students would normally take the Scottish Qualifications Certificate, the Scottish Higher, and the Advanced Higher), typically private fee-paying schools. A-levels are studied over a two-year period and are recognised as the standard for assessing the suitability of applicants for higher academic courses in English, Welsh, and Northern Irish universities.

History of GCE A Level

The A-level from 1951 to 2000

Between 1918 and 1951, the main qualification for school leavers was the Higher School Certificate. This qualification required students to study a range of subjects. By 1953, because it had become apparent that some students were failing the qualification because of weakness in a single area, the decision was taken to develop examinations that assessed students in single subjects. Thus was born the A Level (Advanced Level) examinations, which could be taken on a subject by subject basis, according to the strengths and interests of the student.

The A Level at first was graded as simply pass or fail (although students were given an indication of their marks, to the nearest 5%) but by 1963 rising numbers of students taking the exam made it clear that there needed to be more differentiation of achievement. Letters were therefore introduced to award specific grades of pass to students. The grades were norm-referenced and awarded as follows:

  • A-top 10%
  • B-next 15%
  • C-next 10%
  • D-next 15%
  • E-next 20%
  • O (Ordinary) Level-next 20%
  • Fail-final 10%

Candidates whose marks fell between the 10th and 30th percentiles were awarded an Ordinary Level pass which indicated a performance equivalent to at least a grade C at GCE Ordinary Level.

The validity of this system was questioned in the 1980S because, rather than reflecting a standard, it was simply maintaining a specific proportion of candidates at each grade. During the 40-year period from 1955 to 1995, the percentage of students staying on at school had gone from 13% to 72%, so using fixed percentages of a cohort to establish a standard was becoming less viable.

In 1987, a new system that fixed specific criteria for grades B and E, and then divided out the other grades according to fixed percentages, was introduced. Rather than awarding an Ordinary Level for the lowest pass, a new “N” (for Nearly passed) was introduced. In 1988, GCSE examinations were also introduced replacing the O levels. 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 2003, a UK parliamentary enquiry heard that the A level grading at that time was neither norm-referenced nor criterion referenced, but rather shared elements of the two and so should be thought of as ‘a soft criterion referencing.’

The evolution of A level from a two-year linear course with an exam at the end, to a modular course took place gradually between the late 80S and 2000. By the year 2000 there was a strong educational reason 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

Following the introduction of Curriculum 2000 in September 2000 (with the first AS-level examinations held in January 2001 and a2 examinations the following year), an A-level now consists of four (or six for natural sciences) modules studied over two years. Normally, two modules are assessed in 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 two 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 has a more vocational twist. 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 of 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, Science, and Health and Social care.