TT: Give Me and O! Or an A!

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and take a look at why I think writing for kids is as hard – or maybe even harder – than writing for adults.  Than join me and Alan while he explains the mysteries of the British exam system.

JANE: Now we get to unravel the mysteries of level exams.  Pray, oh, wise one,

Both Passed Their Exams


ALAN: Actually the phrase “level exams” isn’t used as such. I think you are probably referring to the national qualification exams that British children take at ages 16 and 18. In my day they were called O-level and A-level exams (Ordinary and Advanced) though I believe the names have changed a bit since I took them. Nowadays O-levels have largely been replaced by GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education) which is a slightly more pompous name for essentially the same idea.

JANE: Hmm…  If the names have been changed, Harry Potter’s “Owl” levels must evoke the older exam.   Would kids have gotten the joke?

ALAN: Probably not – it’s been about 25 years since O-levels turned into GCSEs. Though by a strange coincidence,  I recently discovered that there is a move afoot to re-introduce O-levels and scrap GCSE. Quite what this would involve is not yet clear to me.

JANE:  So these are national exams.  Interesting.

ALAN: Yes – these are government-run exams which lead to a nationally recognised qualification that is useful for putting on a CV (you’d call a CV a resume).

JANE: Excuse me, sir, I’d call a C.V. a curriculum vitae!  In my profession (before I became a good-for-nothing writer), we used C.V.’s, not resumes.    Jim also uses a C.V.  I wonder where the split is?

ALAN: Oh I’m so pleased! I thought the CV had completely died out in America. I’m glad to find out that I’m wrong.

JANE: It isn’t all that common.  I remember listening to Sting’s song “Epilogue: Nothing ‘Bout Me” with a friend…  There’s a line in which Sting mentions checking his “C.V.”  My friend said, “What’s a C.V., anyhow?”  So it’s not exactly common outside of the more academic professions.

Sting also mentioned “college tutors…”

Now, to get back the topic…

ALAN: Anyway, in order to make such an unwieldy thing as a national exam easier to manage, the country is divided into several autonomous educational regions and each region administers its own exams.

When I was 16 I took my O-level GCE exams (GCE – General Certificate of Education). Most people take up to eight subjects at O-level. But I was a bit of an exception and I took nine. Feel free to call me a show off.

JANE: Show off!  <grin>

ALAN: And when I was 18 I took my A-level GCE exams. These are very advanced exams indeed, and after taking their O-levels, students have to specialise and choose up to three subjects to take to A-level. I studied maths, physics, and chemistry to A-level. And then I went on to university to study chemistry – not only are A-levels quite prestigious qualifications to have in their own right, they are also university entrance exams. You simply can’t go to university if you don’t have good marks at A-level.

JANE: Ah…  That explains something that has puzzled me since I read the biographies of rockers Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood (good books, both, actually), I had a sense that there was a point where they couldn’t have gone on to university, rather than choosing not to do so.

ALAN: That would be right. University study is very challenging and there are only a limited number of places available. There would seem to be little point in awarding a place to someone who is unlikely to benefit from it. So the universities use high grades at A-level as an indicator of academic ability and potential. Even so, the dropout rate is not negligible – the courses are very, very tough indeed and some people simply can’t take the pressure.

JANE: Interesting.  Here there is no barrier to getting a college education other than willingness and ability.  As someone who has taught, some of my best students were those who came in late.  It would have been a pity if they’d been shut out based on not being able to score high enough when they were young.

ALAN: That’s fair enough – but how do the potential candidates demonstrate their ability in the first place?

JANE: As well as the grades they receive in classes and the GPA we mentioned before, there are standardized tests of various sorts: PSAT, SAT, GRE.  They’re not the same as the exams you mentioned because they’re not government-sponsored.   However, they’re meant to provide a basic exam that makes it easier to compare between different schools.

ALAN: So it amounts to much the same thing in both our countries – you cannot go to university without providing proof of academic potential. Only the mechanisms are different. The ideas are the same.

JANE: I’m still not sure…. Somewhere down the line, I’d like to discuss this further.  For now, I’ve got a book to write.


6 Responses to “TT: Give Me and O! Or an A!”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Glad you’re writing! Thanks also to Alan for explaining the Os, As and GSCE.

    SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Testing) are similar to college entrance exams, although you can’t get into most colleges based solely on these scores. I did quite well on the SAT, only to get rejected by one school that decided to depend mostly on grade point average, and bragged about how many high SAT scoring students they rejected. Dopes.

    The PSAT is the Practice SAT, and in some ways it’s more important than the SAT, because it’s what they use to figure out who gets a National Merit Scholarship. Most students blow off the PSAT (which is given in the 11th grade, while SAT/ACT is in the 12th grade). The problem with this approach is that if you do badly on the PSAT you don’t become eligible for a bunch of scholarships. Additionally, if you spend the time prepping for the PSAT and do well, you will likely ace the SAT. This is a big hint to any parents reading this. One bit of free advice: to ace the verbal section of either test, the student really should start reading a lot of fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction, starting as young as possible. This will build their vocabulary faster than vocabulary drills a few months before the exam. I’m sure Jane can recommend some appropriate books.

    There are also AP (Advanced Placement) classes, which are advanced versions of various subjects. At the end of an AP class, you take an AP test, and if you pass (a 4 or 5 on a five-point scale), it counts for college credit, especially in English and calculus. It’s becoming normal for top students to spend their last two years in high school taking mostly AP classes, and to go right into their sophomore year at college.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I do hate to double-post, but I need to thank you two for prompting me to write down my method for acing standardized tests. I posted it over at Since school hasn’t quite started, this seemed to be a good time to talk about how to make those big scary tests more manageable.

  3. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Heteromeles, thank you for BOTH your posts. I had no idea that the PSAT scores were used as a basis for scholarship eligibility although I was aware that SATs were reviewed for college acceptance. I will also GLADLY read your link for doing well on standardized testing. It will be a number of years before my son takes either of these tests, but I fear I am well out of touch with what is required.

    Alan and Jane, thank you both for today’s explanation of A levels and O levels. I had no idea that they had been replaced by a new set of British exams!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Hi Ann

      A-levels still exist and are still very important, particularly as university entrance exams. It seems likely that O-levels may reappear (the GCSE that replaced them has come under very heavy crtiticism) but the jury is still out on that one.



  4. Louis R Says:

    Actually, it _doesn’t_ amount to the same thing: there’s probably as much variation within the US on admission policies as there is between us and the US. More importantly, while SATs are essential for university entrance directly from high school in the US [in Canada, it’s high-school grades plus other activities and submissions] there are other routes to admission for most universities that don’t require them, or at least minimise their importance, and which can be followed later in life. Ultimately, what determines whether you are admitted to a university in North America, and which one, is your ability to pay the tuition fees – or find somebody to pay them for you – while the question of whether you should be _in_ university is decided on academic performance once there, more than prior to admission. Mind you, if you don’t do well in school, you will have a harder time going on, and it has certainly become ‘normal’ to continue immediately, but the system does still have room for those who don’t.

    The notion that people should be tied to a set of tracks at the age of 16 – or worse, 10 or 13 – isn’t all that well regarded here. In fact, we tend to look down our noses at the idea as ‘European elitism’ 😉

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I love the international feedback… And the different points of view.

    I wish I’d known how important the PSATS were. I actually did very well on them, though, so maybe it was all for the best.

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