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A Level Reforms: Will it affect my university prospects?

Posted by: Jo Carter - 20 November 2017 - MPW Group - Read time: 4 mintues

The UK education system is undergoing a government-led reform, with the major change being the introduction of linear A levels. In this article, we explain what has changed and why; the implications of the changes; and how it will affect university applications.

Currently, students take some examinations (AS levels) at the end of their first year and combine their results in these with results achieved in their A2 examinations at the end of the second year. The reform has changed this: now students will be examined on all the material they have studied at the end of their second year, rather than taking examinations halfway through. AS levels will remain as a stand-alone qualification but will be worth 40% rather than 50% of a full A level grade.

The Conservative government have decided to introduce the reforms in an effort to raise standards. The reasoning behind the restructuring of the current A level system is complex. Much of it is in an effort to:

  • maximise teaching time by avoiding dedicating a significant amount of the year 12 summer term to AS revision;
  • make it more difficult to re-sit A levels over the course of the sixth form;
  • reduce the amount of coursework (and the involvement of parents and teachers in the production of this) for many subjects;
  • better prepare students for undergraduate degree courses through the inclusion of topics in A level specifications that will be relevant at university.

What is the timetable for the reforms?

Since the reforms were announced, a number of issues have been raised which have forced Ofqual (a body that regulates public examinations) to adjust the way they are introduced. As a result, A level subjects have been divided into three sections and the new specifications are being introduced in three waves. The first phase of this was in September 2015 and the last will be put in place for the examination season of summer 2018.

The table below shows which subjects will become linear when.



  Facilitating Subjects Other subjects
2015 English literature 
Art and design
Computer science
English language
English language and literature
2016 Geography 
Ancient languages 
Modern foreign languages
Drama and theatre 
Physical education
Religious studies
2017 Maths 
Further maths
All other subjects

Are the new A levels harder than unreformed exams?

Although the government has not explicitly stated that their intention is to reform A levels to make them more difficult, this may be the case for some students. The requirement that AS examinations be taken in the same sitting as A2 examinations means that students will take more examinations in a single sitting than in previous years. The reduction in coursework will also contribute to a rise in the number of examinations for students. The content of some reformed A levels will also be more challenging: for example, there is an increase in the mathematical content of science and social science A levels.

Although this will naturally concern some students, Ofqual have assured schools that the grade boundaries for the reformed A levels will be adjusted so that students studying reformed subjects achieve comparable grades to those studying legacy specifications.

Will the reforms affect my university prospects?

As Ofqual have reassured students and schools regarding grade potential, the reform should not affect your ability to achieve the qualifications required for the universities you plan to approach. Universities are well-versed in the implications on the reforms and students are advised not to let whether a subject is reform or legacy dictate whether or not they take it for A level. There are a number of other more important concerns in making a decision regarding what to study; students can explore our advice on this in our article 5 key factors to consider when choosing A level subjects.

One obvious difference in terms of university applications will be that students studying reformed A levels will no longer have AS grades to include on their UCAS forms. It is a good idea, therefore, to make some effort in year 12 to demonstrate your suitability for university in another way. This could be through work experience you have undertaken or from studying for an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification).

Some universities such as the University of Cambridge have introduced entrance tests for prospective undergraduates. The tests are intended to replace AS levels as a useful predictor of suitability for a course. Although entrance tests are daunting, it is a level playing field as all applicants will be examined in the same way.

What will studying at MPW be like after the reforms?

Since it was founded in 1973, MPW has dedicated itself to providing bespoke educational packages for students. This will not change. We are still able to give students a full range of opportunities regarding what they would like to study and we will continue to do everything we can to help them achieve their full potential.

MPW recommend that students take four AS levels in the first year followed by three full A levels in the second year. We also recommend the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) as an extra, particularly for students taking only three AS levels, as this will be very useful when applying to university.

We believe that the 4 AS/3 A level model is better than 3/3 in most cases because four AS levels give a student more flexibility and also adds breadth to a student’s academic profile. For more information about taking three or four AS levels, please see our advice article.

It will be some time until the UK government’s educational reform is complete, and longer still for it to be fully understood by students, teachers, universities and employers. However, all students are on equal footing and the changes to the A level system should not disadvantage students in terms of grade prospects or university applications. At MPW, our students have always come first and we will continue to provide high quality teaching and bespoke support for each individual.