UK School System
UK school children do 6 years of primary schooling and 5 years of secondary schooling, at the end of which they sit for the General Certificate of Secondary Education. This is followed by 2 years of A-level studies. Schools are either state/government schools, sometimes called comprehensive schools, or independent/private schools, sometimes called public schools. (Yes, it is confusing as by public, in many countries this will be assumed to be government-run, “public” interpreted as in the “public” sector, but all you need to remember is that most overseas students attend private, independent schools). There are literally thousands of what I would call traditional English schools, which can be state-run or privately-run, with classes from kindergarten to A-levels, all under one roof, often with >2000 students. There are also about 25 special private schools called tutorial colleges, of which I represent 4.
Tutorial colleges have the following characteristics which distinguish them from traditional English schools:
- Mainly international students (70% onwards, often with many Asians)
- Average class size is small (9-15)
- Mainly GCSE/A-levels, with perhaps >70% A-level students or even 100% in a few cases
- Students do not wear uniform
- Emphasize academic excellence. That said, many do have excellent sports, music, and art facilities and lots of extra-curricular programs.
- Tutorial Colleges are preferred by Asian parent/students.
- Finally, there are boarding and non-boarding schools among both traditional English schools and tutorial colleges.Non-boarding schools are also known as home-stay or day schools, where overseas students stay in British homes carefully selected by the college.
Each type has its strong and weak points. Boarding schools are perceived to be safer as students do not have to travel to school daily. They, especially the traditional English schools, are also said to give a more rounded education as they have a greater range of extra-curricular activities. However, students have fewer opportunities to learn about the outside world and to be independent as they are confined to their campus most of the time.Also, they tend to form cliques among their country folks and so do not get the maximum benefit out of being in an international setting. Day schools on the other hand allow students more opportunities to learn the local culture and to be independent, self responsible and street smart. However, they require students to spend some time travelling each day and to have a certain amount of self discipline. Sometimes, there are host-student problems, although these tend to be few and are often easily resolved.
The 2-Year A-level Course in the UK
In the UK, A-levels are studied in a modular form and normally over 6 terms in 2 academic years, starting in September and ending in June two years later. Year 1 is known as Lower 6 or AS Year while Year 2 is known as Upper 6 or A2 Year. There are two exams in an academic year; in June (the major one) and in January.
Most A-level subject consists of 4 modules or units, although a limited number such as Maths and Further Maths consist of 6 units. Thus, for each subject, in Year 1, you will study 2 units known as AS units, i.e. units 1 & 2, and in Year 2, you will study another 2 units, known as A2 units, i.e. units 3 & 4. Where a subject has six units, you will study 3 AS units, i.e. units 1, 2 & 3 in Year 1 and 3 A2 units, i.e. units 4, 5 & 6 in Year 2. You will usually study 4 subjects at the AS Level in Year 1, although some colleges may allow you to study 5. Units at the AS level are designed to be easier than units at the A2 level. If you study 4 subjects, you will be taking 8 or 9 units in each year.
A science student will be encouraged to do one arts or humanities subject as the fourth subject, while an arts/humanities student will be encouraged to do one science subject, but this is not compulsory. This is to give you some breadth, in addition to depth, in your area of specialisation. Also, students are allowed to study triple science.
Students in Year 1 are unlikely to take the January exams as you have studied only one full term from September to December. In some colleges, you may be allowed to take one or more AS units, especially if the units have been fully taught. In the June exam, you will take all your AS units to complete your AS level. Thus, the June exam is the major exam. The system allows you to re-sit any unit you have not done well in and this is usually taken in the following January. A higher re-sit mark will replace the lower previous mark of the unit re-sat and there is no record that any unit has been re-sat.Equally, if your re-sit mark is lower than your original mark, your original mark stands and thus there is no penalty.
In the second year which is designated to be a harder level, you will choose the best 3 (or 4) out of the 4 (or 5) subjects you have taken in Year 1, and study these 3 or 4 subjects, at a higher level, called the A2 level, to attain full A-level standards. The exams will consist of another 2 or 3 units for each subject. Exams will be taken in June.The marks of the 4 or 6 units examined in Year 1 and Year 2 for each subject are added up and divided by 4 or six to get a simple average mark for an A-level award. This is advantageous to students as the AS and A2 marks are equally weighted although the AS units are easier to score high marks in, and these high marks will help to pull up the average mark should a student do less well in his/her harder A2 units.
Grades for AS level are designated in lower case and range from a to e while grades for full A-level are designated in upper case from A* to E. A is given to students scoring 80-89 marks and an A* is given for the top 10% of each cohort and is usually above 90 marks. An AS grade is equivalent to half a full A-level subject, and as such, is of value on its own. Universities accept two AS subjects/grades as being equivalent to 1 full A-level subject/grade.
In summary, it can be seen that the A-level system in the UK is more user friendly and has the following advantages:
- Being modular, the exams are spread over 2 exams in 2 years. They are not done at the end of 2 years in a do-or-die single, final exam as in O-levels or A-levels in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong to name a few countries. Thus, students do not have to remember Year 1 work in their Year 2 exams. In this sense, A-levels in the UK are easier.
- Since the marks for AS and A2 levels are weighted equally, after you have obtained high marks in your AS units, you will have bought some “insurance”, as the high marks can help to offset any low marks obtained in the harder A2 units. This will give you a lot of confidence approaching your A2 exams.
- AS units with poor results can be re-taken without any penalty. This gives students a second chance to get better grades, and is especially useful for good students who accidentally score badly in one or two units, e.g. sick on exam day, got caught in a massive traffic jam, misread questions, run out of time, etc..
- The AS units are of stand-alone value in themselves. Thus, students who have studied a subject in Year 1 may choose to stop for whatever reason, e.g. do not like the subject, find the subject too tough, do not have any further interest in the subject, or just simply do not wish to have too heavy a work load in Year 2. An a or a b grade in a subject at the AS level, especially if it is a humanity subject for a science student and vice versa, is a good testimonial that the students has achieved a good balance in his/her studies