Article in summary

Stuart Nicholson, current Chairman of CIFE, writing in 2010, explains that A levels are still the most popular pre-university option because they allow a student to focus on what most interests him or her, yet the range of subjects enables wide choice and permits both specialised and broad programmes of study. A levels remain highly valued for their rigour, taking students to a high level of competence, and they remain the qualification of choice for entry to university.

Article in detail

The Council for Independent Education (CIFE), whose member colleges specialise in A-level tuition, has seen a surprising 62% increase in the last three months in helpline website visits compared with the same period last year (April-June 2010: 5958; April-June 2011: 9663).

This trend is expected to continue over the next few months, in spite of a prevailing context of negativity towards the A-level system expressed by some educationalists, including recent critical remarks by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.

A spokesman for CIFE offers the following, more favourable, perspective on A levels. Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies, explains why A levels are still so popular, with both British and overseas students. He writes:

"In addition to its large cohort of British students, Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies (CCSS) enjoys having forty other nationalities represented in its student body. Although CCSS considered and rejected the idea of offering other pre-university qualifications, the breadth of our geographical intake demonstrates the global appeal of the A-level structure.

What do our international students find so appealing about A-levels? This is a very significant question, not only for us as an individual college, but for the English/Welsh sixth form system as a whole. I interview most of our students during their application process and it is fascinating to learn about the variety of the educational systems in their home countries. Generally classes are large, on average definitely larger than the average classes in the British state schools that our UK students tell me they have experienced. Typically their schools however are rather smaller, and it seems that few schools have as many as 100 pupils in a year group. Almost all countries have in common a great breadth to their compulsory subjects, which all students have to study until they are 18. The narrow and deep specialism of A levels contrasts quite dramatically with the broad and shallow general education to be found elsewhere in the world. I often ask students about what they would study in their own country prior to university. The largest number of subjects was twenty-seven and, whilst this was exceptional, it has certainly been the case that most countries operate a sixth-form diet that, in terms of breadth, would look more familiar to us as a GCSE offering.

The appeal of A levels is therefore perhaps obvious: the opportunity to specialise and to focus on the subjects that the individual finds interesting and is good at. This is unquestionably true and frequently a cause of enthusiastic sparkling in the eyes of our prospective students when we are talking at interview. A less obvious appeal is the range of subjects which can be studied at A level. Most countries insist on a broad range of traditional subjects being followed and the discovery of the possibilities offered by A levels is an absolute revelation to many international students, who find subjects that barely exist as undergraduate studies at home, let alone as pre-university options. From the social sciences of business studies and psychology, to the enormous range of modern languages, the visual arts as diverse as fashion and photography, as well as the more traditional subjects – our international students are delighted by the choices available to them.

Choice and specialisation are hugely attractive, the examinations are widely respected, and both UK and international students value them very highly indeed.

But what of the alternatives? What about the perceived rigour of the Cambridge Pre-U, the currently fashionable breadth of the International Baccalaureate, the apparently direct path of the University Foundation Programme? These are all important points and we have considered them all before confirming our commitment to A levels a couple of years ago.

As to rigour, all our finest universities still overwhelmingly use A levels as the basis of their offers and my view is that they are recognised globally as the bedrock of our excellence in school education. I am also very pleased that, in my experience, across the world, the best UK education remains viewed as the gold standard: quite simply the best secondary education there is. As to breadth, it is a fallacy that breadth is impossible within the A level structure. Since the advent of AS levels, it is far from unusual for students have a mixed diet of, say, History, Philosophy, Maths and Italian. Furthermore, another peculiarity of the UK system is the flexibility of admissions to university with very little restriction of suitable subjects at A level as entry qualifications for most courses. So you can study a degree in Politics or Business, for example, with almost any combination of A levels. University Foundation programmes are very popular at some colleges as a perceived “direct” route into a degree, but they lack the wide acceptance that A levels do as intellectual “hard currency”. A levels give bright students qualifications that are tradable for entry into any good university.

It seems to us that the success of A levels is no coincidence. They present interesting and challenging courses, with opportunities for the narrow specialist and the broader generalist within a framework of rigorous syllabus specifications and a respected examination structure. Our UK students love them; our international students love them; so do we."