Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Discerning A level subjects.

A levels are often the next step of the educational ladder after sitting IGCSEs or, in schools, GCSEs. In school most students will be nowadays be studying an average of 10 to 12 GCSEs over the two years.This sounds a handful but much of the work is done in coursework and assignments and therefore, staggered, and less emphasis is placed on the final exams, unlike with the IGCSEs where everything rests upon the two or three long exams at the end of the course...

So, my question, or pondering really, is how much former studying of the chosen subjects for A level will a child require? And is it imperative for success at A level?

The transition between GCSEs to A levels is alike to taking a fifty mile pilgrimage on bare feet after a soft country stroll around a pretty garden!
A levels are challenging- they are demanding courses and onerous exams and no one can dispute this. Depending upon where the child goes to school or sixth form (or home - which is a rarity for A levels) will depend on how they master and understand their subjects. A levels are the important transition between being spoon fed (if at school anyway!) at GCSE stage to independent learning, thinking, analysing and research all of which is essential for both future studying and life in general.

Most schools and colleges will require a standard six to seven GCSEs grades A to C to enable them to study for A levels. A prestigious private school will require many more than that and most if not all of these will need A*s in order to be short listed for entry.

 Yet what should the student need in the subjects they desire to learn at A levels? Is it imperative do you think to have an A in Maths in order to study A level Maths? or  an A in English to study Literature?

Now, after a few months in sixth form with four AS level exams about to begin next week, Ben would say it is absolutely essential for the student to have gained a very high grade in their IGCSE subject in which they want to take an A level in.

This applies even more if the subject was a GCSE and not an IGSCE. IGSCE really does prepare the student for the AS level  - it is far more rigorous, more in depth and one cannot re-do course work as there is no course work!

Using Maths as an example as this is close to our hearts at the moment it being Ben's fourth 'extra' AS.
He wasn't brilliant at Maths, and certainly never even contemplated taking it at A level standard. Yet once he was faced with his A level choices (which, remember, in some schools are not vast), he wasn't left with that much variety and decided to try Maths.

Whilst he ended up attaining a (high) B in GCSE, he would definitely have benefited more from the IGCSE Maths (Maths, like Latin, Greek, and a few other subjects doesn't require course work and can therefore be taken as a GCSE) as this would have been a more appropriate stepping stone to the A level.

One also needs to take into account the standard of teaching if the child has gone into school and the amount of work necessary for A levels is vastly more than GCSEs/IGCSEs.

In hindsight, Ben would say an A/A* in Maths GCSE is almost essential in order to tackle the A level with relative ease, and the same really applies to all A level subjects- one wouldn't take the sciences without an adequate background of work and qualifications either.

May the Holy Family help and guide all our young scholars in their studies!


  1. With respect to Maths 'A' level; don't even bother without IGCSE! The jump from GCSE to 'A' level is huge and I think it is almost impossible to get a good grade at 'A' level without IGCSE. My eldest son got A* for Maths GCSE and had to give up the 'A' level as he was getting Es and Us.
    The same applies to the sciences, though to a lesser extent. (and the same thing happened to Evan with Chemistry! He went on to get an A in English 'A' level in one year!)
    As you can see, I'm not particularly impressed with GCSEs as a stepping stone to 'A' levels; IGCSEs are more realistic.
    GCSEs are excellent for 'stamp collecting' though. :-D
    Well done to Ben for getting somewhere with Maths 'A' level! :-D

  2. A comment from Jane, a home educating Mother of six;

    I would agree with your post that an A or A* grade at (I)GCSE is best if you want to pursue that subject to A level, having transitioned my daughter from GCSE to A level and taught one of her A levels at home. I think a B grade might be okay of the young person was prepared to work very hard, but a C grade really isn't an adequate preparation for A level study (though is still a very worthwhile achievement in itself for many young people). Jane.

  3. Hi Jane and Clare,

    Thank you for your informative comments. I absolutely agree about the transition between GCSEs and A levels, but especially with Maths and the sciences, which is why I used Maths as the example, but also because of our experience with it. I will feel proud with Ben however he does as he has given himself a challenge with Maths and refused to throw in the towel when it would have been the easier option to do! God bless.

  4. We found the sixth form staff very helpful. Although there is a process of application and interviews, we found that it was at enrolment that real choices were made. We had no real idea of what grades to expect and what that would signify in relation to taking A levels. As it happened she had As and A* s in essay based subjects and a portfolio for art and they were happy for her to take history based on her ability shown in other subjects. She didn't take GCSE history. I really don't know about science but I would say I saw GCSEs as a way into sixth form rather than as an education.

  5. From Tessa Caldecott,thank you Tessa for an insightful comment!

    Hi Amanda,
    a small thought to add to the mix -
    While I think getting an A or A* at GCSE is a good indicator that the student can handle the A-level, I don't think it should be as black and white as all that. Some subjects become quite different at A-level (English, for example, and Physics...) so the content of the A-Level itself should be considered in the light of what they, and their teachers, feel about their capacity to take it on. Someone might have got below an A grade for a variety of reasons - teaching style doesn't suit, the subject areas didn't draw them sufficiently, or they were just overwhelmed by studying so many different subjects. I got a B in drama GCSE for example, because I took on too many subjects and didn't learn anything about exam method from the teacher, despite having got a distinction in Guildhall grade 6 a few years before.
    I think if the student is motivated enough to continue with a subject they got a B in, and has demonstrated room for improvement, it should be considered on an individual basis.
    I would advise as well that students that can respond very differently to different teaching styles (or styles of reading material). You can't always predict these things, but if a student wants to get to grips with a subject but are struggling, sometimes they just need to find a different angle on it (whether it is handed to them, or they have to seek it themselves).