November 20, 2004

What exactly is the point of A–Levels?

Certainly not to prepare one for an English university.

There’s little need to work hard until the end of the year and hardly any coursework. Furthermore, it turns out that half of A-Level Economics is covered in one chapter of the EPAIS degree course, while the Maths A-Level seemed so skate around everything important and provide enough easy marks to avoid anything difficult. And they wrote a syllabus-specific textbook to provide the answers.


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  1. Really? I found Sixth Form had quite a bit more work than First Year of Uni. But then I'm doing an arts degree.

    20 Nov 2004, 15:39

  2. Mathew Mannion

    GCSE's are a measure of if you're good enough for A-Levels.

    A-Levels are a measure of how good a university you can go to.

    When you've got an A-Level, GCSE's are worthless, it'll be the same with a degree. They're not there to prepare you for university at all – I found my Further Maths and Maths A-Level taught in a first year Computer Science module plus a bit more, and my GCSE and A-Level Electronics also. A-Level ICT, despite being the easiest subject at A-Level, is taught in a first year module and a second year module.

    At the end of the day, University is a big step up. The University of Warwick is one of the top academic institutions in the UK, whereas A-Levels are identical no matter which school you do them at (as long as it's the same syllabus).

    20 Nov 2004, 17:13

  3. Mathew Mannion

    The same exam board, rather.

    20 Nov 2004, 17:14

  4. There are many ways to get good marks at GCSE and A-Level without learning the really hard bits – increasingly targetted teaching and selective revision (I'm as guilty as anyone else) mean that students can come away from school with, on paper, better qualifications than any before them, but only as much – or even less – academically useful knowledge.

    The universities are desperate to continue awarding the same degrees for the same level of final achievement but, faced with students spending a year of A-Level learning what used to be taught at O-Level, have to try and cram a significant portion of A-Level knowledge into the start of a degree programme.

    The issue of whether GCSEs and A-Levels, as they are marked now, still provide a useful indicator of true ability to separate people from their peers is also a valid one (they clearly don't!) but a separate one.

    20 Nov 2004, 21:59

  5. Brian Keating

    What I find annoying is that the university assumes that you know all the difficult bits inside out when the examination required you only to skate over them.

    20 Nov 2004, 22:16

  6. There's a fine balance to be struck. If they spend your first year teaching A-Level material, you'd either graduate with a less worthy degree (by rights, unable to get anything higher than a 2:2) or every course would have to become a year longer. An instant increase of 20–30% in student numbers: hmm, I can think of a few people who might welcome the chance to extract more tuition fees…

    Mind you, I'd be very happy spending a fifth year here!

    21 Nov 2004, 01:13

  7. The thing is… if we don't give everybody grade A at A-level then it implies those who don't get a grade A are failures, and we can't be calling people failures in our society, but moreover if we don't let everyone and their dog into university we are rejecting them, and we can't have rejects in society either…

    *sighs* What is the world coming to?!?

    21 Nov 2004, 01:28

  8. JK

    Shameek, you should have chosen an arts subject! I'm not saying they're 'easy', but they seem to take up less time than science degrees and there's no assessed work in the first term for some arts subjects! When you think that 100 years ago most people left school at 12, you wonder what A-Levels are really for… there are better ways to get a proper education (which is not necessarily taught).

    21 Nov 2004, 04:03

  9. Perhaps you should have all done an AEA (Advanced Extension) or SATs. Despite their arbitrary nature, they are in fact quite enjoyable and do provide a challenge. I did the AEA in history, which allowed a more thorough analysis on historical concepts, rather than a regurgitation of facts and teacher advised answer structures.

    21 Nov 2004, 13:46

  10. moan about a-levels all you like… in comparison to that i wish i would have done a-levels in england instead of getting a high school diploma in the usa. even though i had a 97% average and several "college-level" classes (so i actually felt smart for a while), i know nothing compared to fellow students who did a-levels.

    21 Nov 2004, 16:21

  11. Laura that's a good point. Much of the first year of a degree in the USA is equivalent to the last year of A-Level here, maybe cos you guys start school a year later than we do? Also you do a wider range of subjects up until the end of high school, which inevitably means less time spent on teaching them than here, when by that time we've cut down to 3 or 4 subjects

    22 Nov 2004, 01:25

  12. I too did the US high school diploma, but I actually disagree that it's inferior to the A-level system, at least in the subjects that I did. The US system, unlike the British, allows you to go to a good university without having pushed yourself in the least; it is quite possible to graduate looking brilliant and go to a good university without ever having worked to the fullest of your abilities. One person at my school, for example, went to an Ivy League university largely because he played it safe in his last two years, taking the easiest options where available. My school offered two college level English classes: one, the AP program, was rigorous and intense; the other, a University of Connecticut-run program, was a joke. Most colleges treated these courses equally. Guess which he took? Guess which every college-bound senior in my school took, bar 10.

    I took 7 AP courses in high school (English, Psychology, Geography, US Government European History, US History, Statistics) and studied 3 more independently (Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Comparative Politics). I took Euro history as a sophmore, US history as a junior, and the rest in my final year. My experience so far at Warwick, in comparison to those with A-levels (admittedly on an Arts degree, my opinion of math/science A-levels is a lot higher) is that the American system hasn't left me at a disadvantage. In a seminar on the history of world poverty, for example, I had a huge advantage in terms of comprehension over those in my seminar because of my background in economics, politics, geography, even literature (postcolonial criticism . . .) and psychology (Frantz Fanon came up last year). Breadth has its advantages, and the American system offers them, provided students are willing to do the work to take advantage of them. The fact that most aren't willing to put in the effort (because it's often rewarded with a lower GPA) is what distinguishes the English and American systems: here, being prepared for University is a requirement of entry. In America, it's an option. That's not to say the system in both countries doesn't offer such preparation, just that almost none in America bother to take it.

    22 Nov 2004, 14:34

  13. in the high school were i went to quite a few people took ap classes, about 1/3 of the class – i had bio,chem,physics,calculus and english during the 1 1/2 years of going there – how much more specific can you get for a biochemistry degree? and i still felt behind knowledge-wise during my first year.

    22 Nov 2004, 18:18

  14. *where

    22 Nov 2004, 18:18

  15. Yeah, as I said, I get the impression from my flatmates and friends here that science-based A-levels are far more rigorous than the US AP program; my experience has been limited largely to social science and arts subjects, so obviously I can't really comment too much on AP bio, chem, etc.

    Where in the US were you?

    22 Nov 2004, 21:46

  16. hmmm, and i don't know a thing about social sciences or arts. those were the subjects where i didn't bother than doing the simplest of classes (which might have been a mistake). my siblngs might go to an english school for their a-levels in a few years, should be interesting how they find it compared to what i experienced in high school, which was in east hampton, ny btw.

    22 Nov 2004, 22:27

  17. Yeah, it should be interesting.

    I was in Danbury, CT

    22 Nov 2004, 22:42


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I am a 23-year-old Economics, Politics and International Studies student at the University of Warwick, born and bred in Sunderbans, where I studied at Mount Hermon for several months.

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