A-Levels – The Right Choice?

October 30, 2013

Sabine Hutcheson, Academic Director at TutorsPlus
In a region where we are spoilt for choice in post-secondary education, it is important to learn as much as you can about your options. At TutorsPlus we often get asked to explain the pros and cons of the different choices available and A-Levels are a choice that many parents didn’t realise was available in Geneva and Lausanne. This term we thought we would, therefore, turn the spotlight on A-Levels.
Just as with the IB diploma, the French Baccalaureate and the Swiss Maturité, successful completion of A-Levels can be a ticket to universities worldwide and, since this programme is available to students of all nationalities and educational backgrounds who meet the entrance requirements, it is worth understanding its structure and relative advantages.

What are A-Levels?

The A-Level, or “Advanced Level”, programme is the two-year course that follows the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in the UK. A-Levels are subject-specific qualifications available in over 30 subjects ranging from Physics to Psychology. Students taking A-Levels are typically 16 to 18 years of age.  It is generally required that a student should achieve a C or above grade at GCSE in the subject that they wish to study for A-Level.
The major advantage to A-Levels is that students can study as few as 3 or 4 subjects, whilst the IB, French Bac and Swiss Maturité require student to master from 6 to 11 subjects. This means that students who are not all-rounders can focus on a limited range of subjects and so capitalise on their strengths. There is no requirement to study any one particular subject so students can discard the ones they have no interest in or struggle with and focus on the ones they wish to pursue.
In a nutshell, where the IB demands that students be all-rounders, A-Levels are a more specialised and focused diploma which can be a tremendous advantage for certain types of students, particularly in today’s increasingly competitive university application environment.

A passport to universities worldwide

Success in the A-Level programme is known to lead to entrance in universities all around the world. Furthermore, students having completed A-Levels are well prepared and positioned to tackle the demands of the most challenging universities and disciplines. Indeed, studying for A-Levels requires a certain degree of maturity as much of the week is spent on independent study. Students must manage their study time, reading and assignments by themselves and be prepared for the more seminar-like approach of lessons. In this respect, A-Levels are very much a transition from teacher-led education pre-16 years old to the lectures of university degrees.
In the past the IB was thought to be more discriminating and, therefore, to help students secure places at the most competitive universities. However, the introduction in 2008 of the A* grade in A-Levels now differentiates the highest performing students and has given university admissions an even better appreciation of a student’s academic achievement.
Whilst A-Levels are advantageous to many students, colleges like the University of Oxford maintain that “the success rates for students applying with the IB and students applying with A-levels are broadly similar” and that they remain unbiased toward any particular qualification. The key lies in selecting the right programme for the right student.
Universitiesrequire applicants to have completed three A-Levels and generally publish the letter grades necessary for admission (for example, one A and two Bs). In order for students to maximise their chances of achieving the standards sought by the universities of their choice, many A-Level candidates will undertake four courses (perhaps even more in the first year) and apply to university based on their top three scores.

How is the programme structured?

In the A-Level programme, students generally select 3 or 4 subjects that most interest them, allowing them to focus on their passions and their strengths, as well as the courses that will be most relevant to them at university.  The subjects are taught in a modular way and subject-specific exams are given at the end of the first year (called AS) and the second year (called A2).
A-Level students are not asked to prepare an Extended Essay or other significant body of work outside of their normal courses as in the IB programme. Successful completion of three A-Level courses is all the academic qualification necessary for university admission.

Who can enrol in the A-Levels?

To study A-Levels, a student in a UK educational system generally needs five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above. However, this two-year programme is open to students aged 16 and above of all nationalities and educational backgrounds.
According to Raji Sundaram, Principal of the British School of Geneva, over the years that BSG has offered the A-Level programme, it has admitted students from all over the world, many of them non-English mother tongue. Mrs Sundaram is proud to have seen her graduates go on to universities in the UK, Europe (including Switzerland), North America, Asia and Australia to study the subjects of their choice.

The pros and cons of A-Levels

The strongest advantage for many students is the ability to focus where their passion and aptitude lie. A student who excels in Mathematics and intends to pursue that field need not invest time in other compulsory subjects that may hinder their achievement by bringing unnecessary pressure.  A-Level exams are taken independently from one another and students who have failed in any subject are able to re-take this particular exam to improve their marks.
Dr Rachael Walker, Science teacher/Science and Mathematics Co-ordinator at Brillantmont International School in Lausanne says, “For me, the main advantage of taking A levels is that it is possible to specialise and go into greater depth. For example, for students who wish to pursue studies in Science, it is often advantageous to take all three sciences, since they reinforce each other. This is not possible in the IB. Also, a student with A levels will be able to go into more detail in their preferred subjects.”
On the other hand, not all students are able to make choices so early on about what they might want to study or need later on. Specialising in 3 subjects only may, therefore, limit their choices later if they change their mind.  Many students are also in fact all-rounders and may prefer an educational system that offers them the opportunity to shine in a variety of subjects.
Whilst completing A-Levels, candidates enjoy the benefit of personalised support from teachers, counsellors, and school directors. Particular attention is paid to the refinement of increasingly called-upon time and workload management skills. In this way, the A-Level programme provides a strong transition from a structured secondary school environment to the relative freedom of university life.

Ideal Student Profile for A-Levels

  • Independent and self-motivated
  • Has a particular strength and knows the area of specialisation he or she wants to pursue
  • Interested in delving deeper into specific subjects rather than broadly into many

The Advantages of the A-Level Programme

Mrs Sundaram, Principal of the British School of Geneva, the only school in the Geneva area offering an A-Level programme, summarises its benefits as follows:
“The A-Levels definitely suits a certain type of student, one who is good in certain academic areas. Being forced to do subjects that you are not interested in takes attention away from ones in which you can excel. The GCSEs, that precede the A-Levels, offer a variety of subjects, thus providing a well-rounded education across the board. The A-Levels are a safe bet if you are planning to go to university in the UK or anywhere else in the world, including North America, Australia or Europe.”

A-Levels – The Right Choice?

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