Not all secondary schools have the provision for further study post-GCSEs, while some students feel they'd like to experience college life while completing their A-levels

What are A-levels?

Advanced level (referred to as A-level) qualifications are often the natural next step for students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take after finishing compulsory education and their GCSEs.

You'll usually study at least three subjects in one go, and these can range from maths and English literature to film studies, politics, psychology and sports science.

A-level qualifications are typically studied full time within two years, although you can also choose to study them part time at college. Assessment usually takes the form of a series of exams.

Who are A-levels for?

These traditional subject-based qualifications are perfect for those aged 16 to 19 looking to go down the academic route on their way to university - see how many UCAS Tariff points are needed from your A-levels to make it onto a degree course at how to apply for university 2023.

A-levels can also allow you to keep your options open if you're not sure what to do next and they're valued by employers should you then wish to enter the world of work or undertake further training.

Finally, while A-levels are often academically-focused and not generally considered as practical as other college courses such as NVQs and BTEC diplomas, they can still provide a stepping stone to vocational or work-based qualifications such as apprenticeships.

What grades are needed for A-level study?

While each school or college sets out its own entry requirements, you'll usually need:

  • a minimum of five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (or equivalent)
  • at least grade 6 in your chosen subject(s).

What are sixth form colleges?

The Association of Colleges (AoC) states that there are over 40 sixth form colleges in England offering an extensive range of academic, technical and professional courses. These include qualifications such as T Levels, BTECs and apprenticeships, in addition to A-level study.

In their latest College Key Facts 2022/23 report, 124,000 16 to 18-year-olds are studying A-levels at college.

Why should I consider going to sixth form college?

As many secondary schools offer A-levels, students feeling settled there can choose to continue their education at the same school without any upheaval. On the other hand, the negatives of going to the same high school include being too familiar with the teachers, who may not initially treat you much differently from when you were in year 11.

You'll also find that high schools can be more formal than their counterparts as you'll have to share the site with younger pupils in years 7-11. At college, you can make new friends your own age from different schools.

Whether you're looking for a fresh start or you find that there are better facilities at a sixth form college, going down the further education (FE) pathway means you'll be able to choose from a wider range of qualifications than at a school sixth form, which usually just focus on A-levels and BTECs.

Another major thing to consider is the fact that as you'll be learning in an adult environment, this means you're responsible for your own learning and will need to show self-discipline to keep on top of your workload. This is heightened by the fact your timetable may be less cluttered at college, with plenty of free periods.

It's also worth noting that you may get to undertake more online classes, as FE colleges typically offer distance learning classes to adults of all ages.

While students under the age of 19 won't need to pay for sixth form college, there may still be costs involved for study materials, especially on practical courses - and the expense of getting to and from campus.

How do I make the right choice?

As long as there's a sixth form college in your local area, you'll get to decide between school or college and what you go for will depend on your personal preference and the subject(s) you're planning on studying.

Make a list of the pros and cons of each and take into account factors such as the range of facilities, extra-curricular activities on offer, class sizes, quality of teaching, plus the availability of careers services in terms of exploring what you want to do afterwards.

FE colleges often run open days so you can speak to tutors and view the campus for yourself before committing. You'll then get a better feel for if it's the right environment for you.

Should I resit my A-levels?

If you're applying to university and didn't get the A-level grades you were hoping for and have explored alternative options such as Clearing, you may wish to consider retaking your A-levels.

On the other hand, your dream career may involve achieving A-levels (or equivalent) and so getting the job you feel you deserve shouldn't be dashed due to poor exam performance first time around, whether you had extenuating circumstances or not.

However, this is a big decision and one that shouldn't be taken lightly. For a start, you'll have to study the same subjects again and sit the exams at the end of the academic year.

When looking to retake your A-levels it's important to bear in mind that this doesn't have to be at the same sixth form or college you studied at previously, while online options are also available.

It's advisable to discuss this with family, friends as well as teachers and careers professionals to discover whether resitting your A-levels is the best course of action for your circumstances and future ambitions.

Are A-levels for adults/mature students?

While A-levels are typically studied by those aged 16 to 18, there's no upper age limit for choosing to study the qualification as an adult.

The main difference is the costs involved. As a mature student you'll be expected to pay your exam entry fees, which usually range from £80 to £150 for each subject. You'll also need to account for study materials such as course textbooks and revision guides.

Financial support may be available, depending on your circumstances, so be sure to visit GOV.UK - Grants and bursaries for adult learners.

Get more information on adult education.

Find out more

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