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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 17:56 GMT 18:56 UK
What all those exams are
students getting exam results
Exam results go to candidates in August
As an employer, if a prospective employee said they had achieved merit grades in their intermediate advanced vocational extension certificates, would you challenge them?

The qualifications industry in the UK has been in overdrive in recent years, spawning and revising abbreviations to the point where you need an AS VCE just to keep up.

So here is BBC News Online's handy guide to the exam results that are being issued over the next couple of weeks.


A-levels and AS-levels

Properly the Advanced General Certificate of Education (GCE - not to be confused with GCSE, see below).

These days split into two stages: the AS (Advanced Subsidiary - not to be confused with the old Advanced Supplementary), which is also a qualification in its own right, and the A2, which isn't.

The qualifications most people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sit in the two years following the end of compulsory education - the sixth form or college equivalent.

About 780,000 A-level results and about a million AS results will be issued, in more than 40 subjects.

AS-levels are usually taken in three units in each subject, A2s in a further three to make up the whole A-level.

Both are graded on a five-point scale from A to E, with U (unclassified) being a failure to make the grade.

High-flying A-level candidates may also be entered for Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs), introduced in 17 subjects in 2002 to replace the old Special papers.

They are based on the same learning as the A-levels but are more demanding.

Those who pass get either distinction or merit grades, otherwise it's U for unclassified.

Vocational A-levels and AS-levels

These are the Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education and the Advanced Subsidiary Vocational Certificate of Education.

They cover 14 subjects such as hospitality and catering, and construction and the built environment.

Grading is the same as for A-levels.

A Vocational AS-level is tougher than an ordinary AS-level because it is assessed at the full A-level standard rather than assuming only half the learning.

The new Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education Double Award consists of a minimum of six and maximum of eight compulsory units and a maximum of six optional units, designed to be taken over two years.

It has replaced the Advanced GNVQ.

It results in two related grades on a scale from A down to E, with U (unclassified) being a fail.


The General Certificate of Secondary Education, introduced in 1988 to replace O-levels, was largely revamped in 2001 with new "specifications" for most subjects.

They are taken by most students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the fifth year of secondary school.

There are more than 50 subjects in all, with individual students usually taking up to a dozen. About six million results are being published in 2003.

GCSEs are graded from A* down to G, with U for those not making the grade.

But not everyone can get every grade. In most subjects, the exams have two tiers aimed at students with differing levels of ability.

The "higher" tier is targeted at those expected to achieve grades A* to D, while the "foundation" tier is targeted at grades C to G. If you have taken the foundation tier you cannot get more than a grade C no matter how well you do.

Mathematics has three tiers while some subjects, such as history, art and religious studies, are not tiered.

You cannot tell in the published results - or on students' certificates - which route they took.

There are also GCSE Short Courses, equivalent to half GCSEs, in some subjects. These are also graded A* to G and U.

GCSEs in vocational subjects have been introduced to replace GNVQs (see next section).

The following titles are being taught: applied art and design, applied business, applied ICT, applied science, engineering, health and social care, leisure and tourism, and manufacturing.

Courses began in September 2002 so the first results are due in the summer of 2004.


General National Vocational Qualifications are taken at Foundation or Intermediate level in 14 sectors such as art and design, retail and distributive services, and business. They were introduced in 1994.

A Foundation GNVQ is said to be broadly equivalent to four GCSEs at grades D-G.

An Intermediate GNVQ is broadly equivalent to four GCSEs at grades A* to C. For that reason they can help secondary schools lift their league table standings - even though they were intended for post-16 study.

This year there were about 18,000 Foundation entries and 90,000 Intermediate.

Part One GNVQs - Foundation and Intermediate - are broadly equivalent to two GCSEs. There have been about 87,000 entries altogether.

GNVQs are graded from distinction through merit down to pass with U (unclassified) being a fail.

Vocational GCSEs will replace Part One GNVQs from next year.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says the full Foundation and Intermediate qualifications are also being withdrawn, but no earlier than September 2006.

The intention is that they will be succeeded by a range of qualifications, about which consultations are going on.


The first set of results to be declared during the summer are in Scotland.

All candidates receive a Scottish Qualifications Certificate summarising their achievements.

Standard Grades

In their fourth year of secondary school, students are typically entered for eight Standard Grade exams.

The qualification is awarded at three levels from Credit (grades 1 and 2), down through General (grades 3 and 4) to Foundation (grades 5 and 6) - with a grade 7 being awarded to those who simply complete the course.

National Qualifications - Highers

In the fifth and sixth years of secondary education at school or college, students can now follow a range of academic and vocational subjects - more than 50 are available - on a modular system.

There are five levels of attainment: Access (1, 2 and 3), Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2, Higher and Advanced Higher.

The first three are broadly equivalent to the three Standard Grades.

Most people in their fifth year do four Highers - perhaps five, sometimes six - with more Highers or Advanced Highers if they choose to stay on into a sixth year.

The revised qualifications usually consist of three units each, assessed by teachers. Units are qualifications in their own right, and are not graded - you either pass or fail.

Pass all three in a subject and take an external exam - for all levels above Access - and you achieve a National Course.

This is graded A, B or C. Candidates who narrowly fail a course but have passed all the units are awarded grade A for the course at the level below.

Scottish Group Awards

There are also Scottish Group Awards, made up of courses and units which fit together to make a study programme.

This can lead towards a career or specialised programmes in college or university.

The group awards are replacing General Scottish Vocational Qualifications.

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