Golden A-levels
Secondary Focus
A-levels have been remodelled ensuring they fulfil their reputation as the gold standard in educational achievement, as Gillian Evans reports.

Despite the emergence of other university entrance exams in the UK, such as the International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge Pre-U, A-levels are still considered by many to be the ultimate pre-university qualification. "Our experience is that A-level remains very popular with international students as they understand that it is a qualification that is widely appreciated by universities and the level of focus equips them well for university-level study," asserts Steven Jandrell, the Principal of Queen Ethelburga's College in York.

One of the largest international      student nationality groups to favour      A-levels is Chinese, and Victoria Eastman, Head of International Recruitment at Moreton Hall in West Rhyn, explains, "This trend does not seem to be set to change judging by the amount of applications [from China] we have received this year."

Similarly, at St Francis' College in Letchworth, Deputy Head, Elizabeth Foster, observes that the school attracts mainly Chinese students, and that numbers from mainbland China are growing, although A-levels are also popular with Nigerian students as well.

It also appears that the appeal of A-levels is widening, with schools reporting more demand for A-level studies from students from European countries and  beyond. Victoria puts this down to the fact that A-levels are increasingly accepted as an entrance requirement at universities in their home countries.

However, as Steven at Queen Ethelburga's College points out, the International Baccalaureate "has strong currency value in Europe", and therefore remains a highly popular option. He continues, "For a while, IB seemed to be gaining in popularity in the UK when there was talk of radically changing the A-level. However, when these plans were abandoned and the secure future of the A-level assured, UK and international students have seen it as a 'gold standard' academic qualification that opens many doors."

Although the IB, and more recently the Pre-U, are becoming more commonly offered in the UK, A-levels are holding their ground and many believe that the recent changes to the A-level's structure and content are set to ensure their reputation. According to Elizabeth at St Francis' College, the new A-level qualifications seem to be "more demanding, requiring a deeper level of response or a more scientific approach to analysis".

Since September 2016, A-levels have been reformed in three batches of academic subjects, and this September marks the first time that all A-levels will be delivered to the new specifications.

George Budd, Deputy Head Academic at Godolphin School in Mill Hill, explains further: "A-levels are now linear, with only those exams taken at the end of the upper sixth counting towards the overall A-level qualification. For international students, this means that they have an additional year to settle into a new country's education system and develop their language skills before taking a written exam which determines their overall A-level grade."

Steven agrees that the new A-level system is likely to benefit overseas students. "As [international students] are often working in a second language, having a full two years to improve their language skills before their examinations will be to their advantage. The lack of written coursework as part of the course may also be beneficial for those with English as a second language."

He continues, "A number of overseas students have strong mathematical abilities and they will therefore experience no additional difficulties, and indeed may benefit, from the increased mathematical content of some of the new A-levels."

In terms of subject popularity at A-level, maths, economics, business and the sciences all sit at the top of the league table.

However, Victoria at Moreton Hall says they have noticed more overseas students requesting art and accompanying subjects in recent years, and as a result of this trend, the institution will be offering A-level photography from September 2017 for the first time.

With their appeal growing and a wider base of subjects being studied, it looks like A-levels will retain their pole position among university entrance exams in the UK, in spite of the competition from other qualifications.

"I think the competition for A-level study will increase as the popularity of foundation courses and other post-16 options grow," concludes Elizabeth at St Francis' College.

"But I also feel that there will always be a demand for A-levels as they have such a positive reputation as the qualification required to gain access into the best universities," she asserts.

Entrance criteria
To be accepted onto an A-level course, students generally need good GCSE grades in the subjects they wish to take at advanced level. But for international students who do not have GCSEs there is often an alternative set of requirements and George Budd, Deputy Head Academic at Godolphin School in Mill Hill, stresses that their entrance criteria for international students "are flexible". He explains, "Potential students sit entrance papers in those subjects they are considering studying so that we are able to gauge    ability and language skills."


At Queen Ethelburga's College, if students have not studied GCSEs, they are set a CAT 4 test in which they need to score 60-plus in each section. They also require an Ielts score of 6.0 or equivalent. At Moreton Hall, international students have to sit an entrance exam in English plus one other academic subject, have a face-to-face or Skype interview and provide the school with their two most recent school reports. "If we feel they are academically able but their English is too weak to start A-levels immediately, we suggest they join our pre A-level preparation course in our ISC, which runs for three terms plus nine weeks in the summer. Students can join the course at any point, depending on their level," adds Victoria Eastman at the school.


Queen Ethelburga's also runs a sixth form preparation course and foundation courses in Years 10, 11, and 12. "Placement on these courses follows a CAT 4 test and English Test," says Principal Steven Jandrell.

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