A-Levels are an internationally recognised university entrance qualification and yet there are many misconceptions about their academic rigour, the ‘freedom’ they afford students, and their outcomes. We sat down with Swiss international schools – Geneva English School (GES), Brillantmont International School, Academia Schools Group, International School Zurich North (ISZN), and Lucerne International School – to talk about the ins-and-outs of this important pre-tertiary certification.
A-levels (Advanced Level qualifications) are a crucial part of the education system in the United Kingdom and are typically taken by students aged 16 to 18 during their last two years of Secondary school. A-Levels are the most frequently sat university entrance qualification with over 10,000 schools in 160 countries teaching A-Level courses. This number includes British schools outside the UK that are increasingly offering either the UK A-Level or the international variant of this certification.
Although A-Levels are recognised and accepted by tertiary institutions across the globe, there is still confusion amongst parents around what the programme entails and why it might be the best fit for their child.
What are A-levels?
A-Levels are academic qualifications often taken after completing General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSE), either the UK or international version, though students can access an A-Level programme from other curricula, including the MYP, provided they have achieved sufficiently strong grades in their chosen subjects.
A-Levels may have either a linear or a modular structure, with AS-levels (Advanced Subsidiary) usually taken at the end of the first year. AS-Levels on their own are also formally recognised academic qualifications accepted by universities in Switzerland, Europe, the US and UK.
Schools outside of the UK can offer the UK or the international version of A-Levels. The International A-Levels are in essence the same as the domestic (UK) version, however, provide broader examples more suited to the international context. For instance, where the domestic A-Level may pose a UK-based question, the international version may ask in broader international terms or provide global context. Some Swiss Universities such as EPFL will only accept the UK A Level so it is important to understand which version schools offer. Geneva English School (GES), for example, only offers UK A-Levels but other contributing schools offer the International version.
Typically, students select 3 to 4 A-Level subjects, which may include mathematics, sciences, humanities, and arts. Each A-Level takes approximately 300 hours of study to complete and allows students to develop expertise in areas they are passionate about.
A-Levels also include a number of self-study hours. In these times students are expected to study their chosen topics independently and use research, critical thinking, and analytical skills to deep dive into their subjects. Some students will also choose to study the International Project Qualification (IPQ) or Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).
“We have been offering A-Levels for over 80 years, which demonstrates our belief in them and their ability to open university doors worldwide. We find that students studying A-Levels are extremely motivated, since they choose the subjects in which they are interested, rather than having an imposed curriculum. This gives them ownership for their learning journey. Although challenging, students studying A-Levels still have time to play sports, essential for well-being. Plus, they participate in service-learning projects by choice rather than obligation. As a result, we see a positive circle of virtue and success.”Sarah Frei, Head of Admissions & External Relations, Brillantmont International School
How are the A-Levels assessed?
A-Levels are primarily assessed via a set of standardised exams, with some courses also featuring non-examined assessment (NEA) coursework. Some schools also offer the additional International Project Qualification (IPQ) or the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). These are delivered and graded in much the same way as a university dissertation, only on a smaller scale. The grade for this qualification is based entirely on the research, written work, and presentation of the findings. At International School Zurich North (ISZN), the IPQ is compulsory for students studying A-Levels.
The IPQ is crucial for students to develop the essential skills required for successful university study. At ISZN we provide students with a mentor to support them through the research, writing and presentation process, helping them to transition from the structured world of high school essay writing to the sophisticated, self-directed style of tertiary education.James Stenning – Principal ISZN
How are A-Levels different from the IB Diploma?
Deciding between A-Levels and the IB Diploma can be tricky. Both pathways lead to university admission and offer valuable skills and knowledge. Broadly speaking, A-levels offer ‘deep-dive’ learning into specific subjects of interest and develop independent learners. On the other hand, the IB Diploma provides a broader and more holistic educational experience.
“When looking at the key differences between the A-Levels and the IB Diploma programme, the IB Diploma is all about breadth, whereas A-Levels are more about depth and focus. Students studying A-Levels select subjects they are passionate about and, as a result, can showcase their skills, knowledge and understanding of those subjects while leaving behind other subjects they don’t enjoy or where they may struggle.
The IB on the other hand is generalist to the end. One is not better than the other, rather they are different, and it comes down to which programme an individual student (and their family) prefers. However, that said, the format of an A-Levels programme is more similar to that of a university course, so students may be better prepared for that next phase of their education when they get there.”Matt Williams, Headteacher, GES
Parental Worries Around A-Levels
“The A-Levels are too focused. My child is too young to know what they want to study at university!“
Although the A-Levels are extremely focused, the core skills learnt during the course of study are easily applicable and transferable to a broad range of university subjects. This means that – with the exception of degrees such as medicine and veterinary science (which require specific subject combinations) – students can apply and be accepted into any degree of their choosing.
“A-Levels are not academically rigorous enough“
This is possibly the greatest misconception of all. Because students focus on subjects they are passionate about, they are motivated to think critically and deepen their understanding of the topic. A-Levels are in many ways similar to the first semester, if not year, of Bachelor study. In fact, oftentimes, students with A-Levels are able to skip first year courses or receive credits towards their degrees.
The A-Levels, whether the UK or international version, enable students to apply to the world’s best universities including Harvard, Yale, and other top universities across the globe.
“Parents often have questions about the academic rigour of the A-Levels. Many are afraid that the 3 – 4 subjects usually selected are not enough, especially when they see “independent study” as an integral component of the programme. The ability to specialise in subjects that the student wants to study is a huge positive for the A-Levels. Academic outcome is strongly based on the motivation to study, and by focussing on subjects that are the student’s strengths, it is a clear advantage. Given the status of A-Levels as being globally accepted by universities and the depth of study required, they remain an outstanding choice for academic growth and preparation for the specialist nature of undergraduate study.”Kamran Baig, Founding Director, Lucerne International School
“A-Levels are only good for the UK“
While A-levels are known as a UK qualification, they are recognised and accepted internationally, from the United States and Canada, the Middle East, Europe, much of Asia, Oceania, South America and beyond. This makes A-Levels a valuable credential for students pursuing higher education abroad.
“A-Levels are an important credential regardless of where you apply to university. We have had students that have studied A-Levels go on to top universities in the US and Switzerland – to name a few recent examples. In addition, the world of work is also becoming more international, which means that A-Levels with their global orientation and English are gaining enormously in popularity. I think it is important that students and families understand that A-Levels will take you wherever you want to go. They are academically rigorous, trusted and a renowned pre-tertiary qualification.”Dr. Ludovic Allenspach, Co-CEO Academia Schools
“My child will have too much free time“
Although your child will likely only study three or four subjects, the expectation for in depth research and understanding means that study must be taken seriously. Even in self-study periods students quickly learn that they need to use this time effectively.
Another benefit of the structure of the A-Levels is that students have more flexibility. This means that they are able to participate in sports, music and other clubs, whereas a more structured programme might see students dropping these activities if they do not fit in with their schedules.
Many schools also offer the International Duke of Edinburgh Award which includes voluntary service, physical recreation, skill development and adventurous journey.
For students studying A-Levels “Free time”, is rather a time to study or participate in activities which form part of a well-rounded education.
“If my child doesn’t pass, they are stuck having to repeat everything!”
The good news is, all participating international schools tell us that apart from a truly rare exception, all of their students pass the A-Levels. In the exceptional case a student does not pass, it is possible to sit the exam again without repeating the entire course of study. Luckily, with particularly high pass rates for students at international schools, this is an unlikely outcome for your child.
Your child’s educational and career goals are almost as individual as they are. Learning about the options that are available to them allows you to help them navigate the breadth of choices they face in selecting the right study path.
There are many reasons why A-Levels may be the best fit for your child. They allow students to specialise in specific subjects of interest, helping them to develop in-depth knowledge and skills in those areas. A-Levels are academically challenging, foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and the analytical skills needed for further study and life beyond.
- Students choose 3 – 4 specific subjects to study in-depth.
- Offers subject-specific flexibility – meaning there are no truly compulsory subjects.
- This allows students to focus on their academic strengths and interests.
- Two-year programme taken after completing (I)GCSEs, if already in a British curriculum school, but accessible to all students, including those who completed the MYP, with sufficiently high grades
- Primarily assessed through final exams, which are externally graded.
- Recognised globally for university admissions – just check if the school offers International A-Levels or the UK A-Level.
- Students study six subjects.
- Core Components: Includes the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS), and the Extended Essay (EE).
- Emphasises interdisciplinary learning and connections between subjects.
- Assessment includes coursework, oral exams, written exams, and internal assessments.
- Two-year programme taken after completing the MYP.
- Includes a mandatory service component (CAS).
- Recognised by universities worldwide for admissions.