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New exams Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
What's new
exam sign
The new exams have been causing a fuss
E-mails to BBC News Online from teachers and students talk of "overload", "shambles" and "fiasco" - there is no question that the changes to the A-level syllabus have not gone entirely smoothly.

The principle behind them - broadening studies for 16 to 19 year olds - has almost universal support.

The main issue is the implementation of the changes this year, and the cumulative impact of inserting a new tier of public examinations.

Strictly speaking they are optional - but schools and colleges have felt obliged to enter their students for them, for fear that they might otherwise lose out.

The main changes are:

  • AS (Advanced Subsidiary) levels, designed to encourage students to study four or five subjects at the equivalent of half an A-level.
  • A-level coursework restricted to 25-30% of the total marks. Students sitting modular A-level courses will be allowed a maximum of one re-sit per module.
  • Vocational A-levels replacing Advanced GNVQs.
  • a new Key Skills Qualification, testing students on their ability in communication - written and verbal, "application of number" and information technology.

This is what the qualifications involve:


Advanced GCEs are two-year academic courses which can be taken in a wide range of school subjects, including languages, science and the humanities. The traditional pattern has been for students to take three A-levels, although a choice of two or four is not uncommon.

Courses consist of a combination of internally-assessed coursework and externally-assessed examinations. Some courses are made up of units of study called modules.

A-levels are academically demanding and are the main qualification needed by students who want to go to university or higher education college to take degree courses. The entry requirements to take A-level courses are usually four or five GCSE passes at grade C or above.

Following the introduction of the AS-level "halfway house", A-levels proper are now known in the education world as A2s.


An Advanced Subsidiary comprises half the content of an A-level. It is both the first half of an A-level and a qualification in its own right.

The government, keen to broaden the range of subjects taken by 16-plus students, is encouraging them to replace the traditional three A-levels with an arrangement such as three A-levels - made up of AS and A2 - and two AS-levels.

AS-level exams can be taken in the first or second year of post-16 study. Most schools have opted at the start of the new system in 2001 to enter students for them in their first year.

There have been complaints that students, schools and colleges have been overburdened by the introduction of the new exams and Key Skills.

Strictly speaking they are voluntary - all exams are - but schools have felt obliged to put their students in for them, for fear they would lose out if they did not.

Advanced Extension awards

AE-levels are intended to allow the top 10% of advanced level students to demonstrate their depth of understanding of a subject.

Following trials and pilots in 2000 and 2001, they will be available in 2002 in at least 13 subjects and will be awarded at merit and distinction grades.

Key Skills

The original reason for devising the Key Skills programme in the 1980s was an attempt to win over sceptical employers.

The complaint was that, for all their paper qualifications, teenagers coming into the workplace could not properly read, write or do arithmetic.

The qualification covers:

  1. communication
  2. application of number
  3. information technology
  4. working with others
  5. improving own learning and performance
  6. problem solving.
It is available at four main levels stretching roughly from lower-grade GCSE to degree standard.

The first three "core" skills together form what is known as the Key Skills Qualification. It was introduced by the government last year as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has a separate Core Skills qualification.


Candidates have to compile a portfolio of work, which is assessed within their place of study, then pass externally-set tests.

So that they do not have to do "the same thing twice" they can get "proxy" qualifications if the Key Skills work is already covered by their other qualifications.

For example, candidates who have good GCSE grades in maths and English would be exempt from the numeracy and communication tests.


General National Vocational Qualifications remain but are changed at the advanced level.

GNVQs are one or two-year courses designed to provide 16-18 year olds with a broad-based education leading to a wide range of jobs, training or further education. All GNVQs include key skills.

The courses are modular and qualifications can be built up unit by unit. There are three levels: Foundation, intermediate and advanced.
Broadly equal to four GCSEs at grades D to G. It normally takes one year and may not need any previous qualifications.
Broadly equal to four GCSEs at grades A* to C, and normally takes one year. The usual entry qualification is four GCSEs at grades D to G.

The government intends that from 2002, Vocational GCSEs will replace GNVQs in England (and Wales) as the non-academic alternative for pupils aged 14 to 16, or for older teenagers as a way of improving their employability.

Now renamed Vocational A-levels with more rigorous assessment.

They are available in three, six and 12 units. The three-unit version is available in business, engineering, health and social care, and information and communication technology (ICT) and is equivalent to the AS-level.

The six-unit Vocational A-level is available in 14 subjects and is equivalent to the A-level.

The 12-unit Vocational A-level ("double award") is equivalent to two A-levels and is available in 13 subjects.

GNVQs can be taken at some school sixth forms or sixth form colleges, as well as at tertiary colleges. Full-time courses are free to those aged 18 or under.

Links to more New exams stories are at the foot of the page.

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