The Impact of Proposed Changes to A Levels

Dr Craig Wilson, Managing Director Schools at CATS Global Schools, shares his thoughts on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plans to radically reform A Levels.

On Friday 22 Sept 2023 Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asked for plans to be drawn up for radical reform of A Levels, introducing a baccalaureate style qualification that would allow students to study more subjects after age 16. In the UK, students traditionally take three A Levels, but they would be required to study a wider range of subjects in post-16 education, and English and Maths would become compulsory until the age of 18. Sunak had already said that he wanted all students in England to study Maths to age 18, whether at A Level or through another qualification.

Breadth Versus Depth

A Levels were introduced in the UK in 1951. Their key benefit is that they allow students to study a small number of subjects to a significant depth even before they begin university. Students can focus on subjects they enjoy, excel at, or both. While the subjects they choose do not define precisely the University degree they will study, they generally determine their future area of specialism. At CATS Global Schools (CGS) we spend time with students before they begin their studies with us exploring their interests and working with them to determine the best set of subjects for them to choose. This year, our A Level university destinations included University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and the London School of Economics.

Some critics say that the A Level system is too narrow, but others praise the deep nature of the study. Sunak believes that, at present, children are allowed to drop key subjects such as Maths and English too early and that a broader curriculum up to age 18 is a better approach. While at CGS, students with English as a second language continue to study the subject through their A Levels, we do understand that this approach also suits some students better since, at age 16, they are not yet clear on where they would like to specialise at degree level.

Preparing For Impact Beyond The Next Election

The plans would take time to be developed and are unlikely to take effect before the next election. However, if they are implemented in 3-4 years’ time, then CGS is well placed to support and give options to students. As well as successfully delivering A Levels in all our UK high schools and helping students achieve excellent grades, we have experience teaching International Baccalaureate (IB) which has been running for over 15 years at The Worthgate School in Canterbury. This year, our IB university destinations included Newcastle University, University of Sheffield, and SOAS, University of London. If the UK post-16 education system changes to a broader baccalaureate style system, we will easily be able to bring our experience to bear across all our schools.

An Alternative Qualification To Prepare Students For University

In addition, CGS has been delivering the CATS University Foundation Programme (UFP) for more than 30 years. This programme currently runs at four of our UK schools (CATS Cambridge, Worthgate, Guildhouse and Bosworth Independent School). It allows students to progress to highly ranked UK universities across a wide range of degree subjects. This year, our university destinations included Durham University, University of Bath and University of Warwick. One talented UFP student was accepted to study Chemistry at St Andrews University, which is ranked as the UK’s number 1 university by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024. The CATS UFP is unusual in allowing students to choose three subjects to study and be graded in, similar to the A Level approach. This gives much greater flexibility to students than the pathway approach, which is the most common one. It also means that universities can make offers in a similar manner to A Level, with grades specified for each subject that a student is studying. We find that this makes universities confident in accepting CATS UFP students with offers that are typically the same as those made to A Level students. As things stand, we see no reason why the CATS UFP could not continue operating on our current model if changes take place to the A Level system. This would give students attending CGS schools choices of qualification style to reach their desired university destination with the support of our dedicated and highly knowledgeable staff.

However, as this proposal develops over the next few years, CGS and its schools are well placed to continue supporting international students on their journey to universities in the UK and around the world.

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