A-levels and equivalents

A-levels (Advanced levels) and their Scottish equivalents are the most popular option for continuing students after GCSEs and Standard Grades

These qualifications allow students to progress into higher education or gain employment.

A-levels have international recognition and are regarded as the ‘gold standard’ of English education. A large range of subjects is available.

Students normally gain A-level qualifications two years after the GCSE.

What’s available?

GCE AS-level and A-level
A-level in applied subjects
The Extended Project
Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher
Scottish Baccalaureate
International Baccalaureate (IB)
Cambridge Pre-U Diploma

GCE AS-level and A-level

A-level students follow a programme for one or two years.

At the end of the first year, students are assessed for an Advanced Subsidiary (AS) qualification. They may either use this as a separate qualification or continue to study for a second year to take the A2 examination and complete a full A-level.

Students are encouraged to take four or five subjects to AS level for one year and specialise in two or three of these in the second year. AS grades may count towards university entrance requirements, but AS qualifications alone will not fully meet these requirements.

There is no age limit for taking A-levels, and many international students take them, often to meet university entrance requirements. Many colleges of further education and independent colleges offer intensive one-year A-level programmes.

A-level in applied subjects

A-levels in applied subjects (at N/SVQ level 3) are available, to run parallel to academic A-levels. Students in many schools and colleges will study a mixture of the two.

Like AS/A2 A-level courses, they can be studied for one or two years. Subjects are available in many occupational areas, including:

  • media
  • IT
  • engineering
  • business
  • science
  • travel and tourism.

These qualifications have equivalent value to A-levels for meeting the general entrance requirements of higher education institutions. For entry to some degree programmes, academic A-levels may be preferred.

A-levels are graded from A* to E (pass grades) and U (fail). Grades may count towards university entrance requirements.

The Extended Project

This is a stand-alone qualification, equivalent to an AS level, aimed at those studying A-levels and other NQF Level 3 qualifications. It is also part of the new 14–19 Diploma. Taking one year, it is a single piece of work by a student on a topic agreed to with their teachers. The Project will allow students to follow an area of interest to them in greater depth while at the same time training them in research and independent learning skills. Students are allowed flexibility in what they can do, anything from a design to a dissertation or even a performance, and the end result will be graded from A to E.

Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher

These are the Scottish equivalents to the English AS, A2 and A-level in applied subjects courses.

Students in their last two years at school (generally aged 17 or 18 years) usually study five subjects in the first year and three of these for a further year. Highers usually take one year, with students progressing to Advanced Highers in the second year (at the age of 18). The content of Advanced Highers can overlap with some higher education courses.

Highers are awarded at grades A–C and Advanced Highers are awarded at grades A–D. Both academic and vocational subjects are available. (Note that Higher units in English for Speakers of Other Languages have recently been introduced.)

Highers and Advanced Highers are the qualifications most often required for entry on to Scottish higher education courses (usually three to five passes at grades A–C for a degree course, two to three passes for an HNC/D, and Advanced Highers in up to three subjects for courses at institutions elsewhere in the UK).

Scottish Baccalaureate

To cater for brighter students in the fifth and sixth years of secondary education, the Scottish Science Baccalaureate and the Scottish Languages Baccalaureate were launched in 2009, with the first awards being made in 2010. They are made up of existing Higher and Advanced Higher courses: two Advanced Higher Courses and one Higher Course from an approved list of courses (plus an Interdisciplinary Project) have to be successfully passed before a Baccaluareate will be awarded. These are graded Pass or Distinction.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB is a two-year course for students aged 16–19 that is available in many countries, including the UK (more than 100 UK institutions currently offer it).

Although studying for an IB involves a wide range of subjects (arts, sciences, languages, humanities and mathematics), this leads to a single qualification rather than individual qualifications for individual subjects (although students are awarded a certificate for each subject studied if they fail to get a full IB).

The IB consists of a compulsory core made up of three elements (theory of knowledge; creativity, action and service; and an extended essay) plus six optional subjects chosen by students (one each from: first language; second language; experimental sciences; mathematics and computer science; the arts; and individuals and society).

Three of the optional subjects are normally studied to a standard level and three to a higher level, which involves more in-depth teaching (although it is possible to take two at the standard level and four at the higher level).

Assessment by points awarded for students’ performance: up to three points for the core elements and up to seven for each of the optional subjects. The maximum possible is 45 points, and 24 points or more are necessary for the award of a full IB.

The IB is widely accepted as an entry qualification by British universities and other institutions throughout the world. Since 2008, successful completion of an IB officially counts towards the UCAS tariff for getting into UK higher education (an IB worth 24 points is the equivalent of two Bs and a C grade at A-level; the maximum of 45 points is the equivalent of six As at A-level).

Cambridge Pre-U Diploma

This two-year qualification aims to equip those studying it with the independent thinking and learning skills necessary for higher education.

Students study three subjects chosen from a total of 26 on offer, each the equivalent of an individual A-level subject. It is also necessary to undertake an Independent Research Report and a Global Perspective Portfolio to be awarded the full Diploma (although each element can also be taken singly, leading to the award of a Pre-U Certificate).

The Diploma can also be combined with other qualifications, including A-levels. Indeed, it is possible to replace two of the elements with A-levels and still be awarded a Diploma at the end of it. The Diploma is growing in popularity in the independent schools sector.

Find out more practical details about A-levels and equivalents

Find out more about costs and the application process for A-levels and equivalent qualifications.

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