A serious, alternative path to university for students in our region.
With most International Schools in the Suisse Romande now offering only the International Baccalaureate as a path to university, it is important to remember that this is not the only option available. In this article we will take a look in detail at the British A Level option and some of the reasons why it might actually be a better choice for some students. At the moment, A Level courses are taught over two years—the equivalent to years 12 and 13 in the IB programme. Each A Level subject is broken down into between four and six separate units of study followed over both years—usually half of these units are examined at the end of year 12 (generally called AS Level) and the remaining units taken at the end of year 13 (A2 Level). The final grade awarded in each subject takes into account a student’s performance in all of these units.
Admission to most UK universities will normally require a minimum of three A Level subjects studied—as with every other system, the exact number of courses and grades required will always depend on how much competition for places exists—put simply, the better the grades, the more options an applicant will have. Although the IB is now fairly well known in many UK universities, the A Level applicant is still the one with which admissions officers are most familiar.
A Levels differ from the IB (and the French Bac and Swiss Maturité) in many ways. The most obvious and perhaps important distinction is that A Level students will study only three or four subjects during the two-year programme. The fact that this is far fewer than any of the alternative systems allows A Level students to focus on their target university domains much earlier—they get to spend all of their time studying a few subjects that will be important for them rather than six, seven or even eight subjects, many of which will be irrelevant for their chosen university courses.
Another major advantage is that A Level students have a completely free choice of subjects—there is simply no requirement to include any particular subject in their range. So, for example, a student bound for medical school might focus on only Sciences (Chemistry, Physics and Biology) while a linguist might opt for French, German and English. This flexibility allows students to focus much earlier and to avoid studying subjects that will be of little use to them in later life.
It should also be noted that within the programme, each A Level course is a stand alone qualification—students are not required to pass all subjects in order to receive a diploma. In real life this means that student taking four A Levels can afford to perform poorly in one subject (25% of the curriculum) and still enjoy straightforward access to university. This offers them a clear advantage over students in other systems that offer an all or nothing result.
This flexibility even extends down to unit level with students being able to retake individual units of an A Level—that is sections of courses—in order to improve their overall grade in that subject. Given the greater specialisation as compared with other pre-university programmes, it is evident that A Level students can spend more of their time on each subject. As well as being able to study the subject in greater depth, this focus also leads to an emphasis on the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, which in turn will better prepare students for the reality which awaits them when they eventually reach university.
A Levels represent a real option even if a student has no intention of applying for admission to a university in the UK. These qualifications are recognised through the European Union and also provide access to all Swiss state and private universities. In all cases it is always best to check with the individual university as to what their exact entry requirements will be. A Levels will also provide access to universities in the USA and Canada and here once again exact requirements will vary. In some cases, A Levels are judged to be of sufficient value for students to be given first year credits for their A Level results, thus leading to an easier transition into university life.
A Levels at the British School of Geneva
The British School of Geneva (BSG) has successfully been offering A Levels since 2005. The exams are accredited by EDEXCEL, one of the largest international British examination boards. Class sizes are deliberately limited to a maximum of 10 students in order to allow teaching staff to give the greatest possible attention to each individual student and their specific needs. Although the minimum requirement for entry to a British university is only three A Levels, the full-time BSG curriculum requires that students actually study four subjects. This either allows the students a margin for error, or, in the event that the student is successful in all four subjects, gives them a competitive edge in the university admissions process.
Although students are only required to study four subjects, BSG offers them a wide range of subjects from which to pick, including Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History, Economics and Business, Geography, Mathematics, English Language and Literature, Psychology, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.
A Levels at BSG are open to students who hold an International General Certificate of Secondary Education from BSG itself or from other international schools. Additionally, Middle Years Programme students from international schools, as well as students from Swiss and French public and private schools and students from other countries who fulfil the entry criteria, are welcome at BSG. Nowadays it is a common occurrence to find students who have completed their years of education between ages 5-16 in one school, and who then move to BSG in order to exploit the many advantages of the A Level system.
Most BSG graduates continue their academic journeys in British universities; recent destinations include the universities of Kent, Royal Holloway, York, Coventry, Cardiff, and Exeter. Other graduates go on pursue higher education in Europe, notably Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, as well as across the ocean in the USA and, especially, Canada.
Article by Bronwen Gerber