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The A Level Debate: Is three the magic number?

Should pupils try to get as many A Levels as possible, or focus their efforts on getting better grades in fewer subjects?

Posted by Hannah Vickers | June 13, 2017 | Teaching

By Rob Hastings, Director of Sixth Form at Ipswich High School for Girls 

The uncoupling of AS from A Levels has posed lots of questions for sixth forms across the country, especially when it comes to whether students are best off studying three or four A Levels. A recent Daily Mail headline reported on Jonathan Godfrey’s (Chairman of the council of the Sixth Form Colleges Association) stance that students should take four, or even five A Levels in the Sixth Form, as keeping their brains busy is the key to A Level success.

In my experience, however, it is not necessary to study more than three A Levels to achieve success.

Ultimately, the vast majority of our students are studying A Levels in order to get a place at the university of their choice. No university makes an offer of admission on the basis of four A Levels; all offers are made on three, including Oxford and Cambridge. Bristol University, for example, only looks at three A-Levels and the eight best GCSE grades as a measure of academic achievement and potential. Therefore, it is advantageous for a student to focus on the three subjects that will maximise their chance of gaining the high grades needed to secure places at top universities. This approach works well at the Ipswich High School Sixth Form, with a vast majority of our students receiving offers from their chosen universities for demanding subjects.

I do agree that by keeping their brains busy, students can stay focussed on achieving highly in their examinations. However, if a student fully commits to studying their three chosen A Levels in the depth necessary to achieve A* grades, they will absolutely be busy enough!

I do agree that by keeping their brains busy, students can stay focussed on achieving highly in their examinations. However, if a student fully commits to studying their three chosen A Levels in the depth necessary to achieve A* grades, they will absolutely be busy enough! We expect our students to commit to 15 hours of work per subject outside of class every fortnight and most of our sixth formers will exceed this amount. This is demanding yet achievable and allows our students to partake in our extensive programme of enrichment, which is a crucial element of life at Ipswich High School, not least because it develops such a wide range of essential ‘soft skills’, which are valued highly by universities and employers alike.

In addition to the three A Levels we recommend, our students can take an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), something that more and more universities like to see in an application. An EPQ allows a student to immerse themselves in researching a topic in which they’re really interested over a long period of time, gaining research and analytical skills that are hugely beneficial when they start their university courses.

I have noticed a trend at other Sixth Forms where students are allowed to start four A Levels and then drop one in the Easter Term or at the end of the Summer Term in Year 12. However, there are a number of problems associated with this strategy. Firstly, the time a student spends on the fourth A Level only to drop it six months later could be far better used invested in the other three subjects. All A Levels are getting harder; Maths now includes content that has never been taught at A Level before and there is increased content and complexity in all subjects, meaning more time needs to be spent outside of the classroom cementing that knowledge.

While our flexible and bespoke to Sixth Form ultimately allows each of our students to decide how many A Levels they would like to study, my advice is that three A Levels and the additional enrichment and EPQ produces the strongest results and most successful university applications.

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