This page outlines the basic stages within the English education system, as a general reference for students and parents. The information within it is by no means exhaustive - for more information, please refer to the sites given on our links page. As studies become more advanced, they are generally undertaken with reference to specific subjects and subject areas. If difficulties are encountered with these, please contact us directly to determine the best course of action to deal with them.
The work for key stage 1 includes a grounding in literacy, commonly known as reading, writing and spelling, numeracy (maths) and basic science. Children are assessed by National Tests and Tasks in English and maths. It is on the basis of the results that a child's strengths and weaknesses are identified.
Key stage 2 builds on the foundations of key stage 1, with further work in reading, writing (including handwriting), spelling, maths and science. Mental arithmetic is introduced here to provide children with good number skills. It is also at this key stage that "science" is broken down into its constituent disciplines, namely biology, chemistry and physics. Introductory work is undertaken (for example with the study of rocks as a foundation for geography) to introduce other disciplines, such as geography, history and music. Computer science / information technology is also brought into the classroom in a variety of ways to demonstrate the wide-ranging applicability of computers to the growth of society as a whole (although these terms are not usually used at this stage).
Pupils are further tested at key stage 3 to give them a sense of achievement prior to starting their GCSE course. Teachers use these test results to check pupils' progress in order to give them, and their parents, the best advice with regard to GCSE choices.
Key stage 4 provides the basis for studies leading to GCSE examinations. More detailed study is undertaken in English, maths and science, in addition to providing for the "cultural" aspects of a student's later life, by lessons in history, geography, a modern foreign language, design and technology, information and communication technology, media studies, art, music and physical education.
In writing about the need for good scores in SATs, I thought it might be useful background to know what SATs actually stood for. SAT stands for Statuory Assessment Test; a title that is no longer used, but remains as a term commonly used for the national tests. Interestingly, the term has no association with the U.S. SATs, although the acronym is the same.
In England, SATs are not designed as a measure of "pass" or "fail", merely as a means of assessing a student's progress in terms of national levels, in order to provide teachers with a basis to make a plan of future learning activities. This ensures that all children should be given the best opportunity to reach their full potential.
The old "A" level was replaced in 2001 with a new, more flexible system. This comprises a two-part course; the AS and A2 qualifications. When combined, the AS and A2 segments constitute an "A level". Each of these segments are generally broken into 3 units, which are examined separately. As a consequence of this, in the event of a poor performance in particular units, students may resit these to obtain a higher grade overall. The interrelationships between these courses are outlined in more detail in the two following sections.
The "new" AS qualification represents the first half of the full A level and is designed to encourage students to examine more subjects in the first year of advanced level study. The AS level comprises 3 units which are generally selected by students according to their interest level or relevance in their anticipated career. This enables students to have a more diverse knowledge base, which may help with future career choices. In addition, students who choose to leave a course after the first year now have the opportunity to gain credit for their efforts. The AS level is considered a qualification in its own right.
The second year of the full A level is called "A2". A2 again comprises 3 units, which are selected according to the students' interests. However, more careful thought should be exercised here, since some units may be undertaken more easily based on the work undertaken as part of the preliminary units of the AS level. Unlike AS, the A2 units do not make up a qualification in their own right. They must be combined with an AS qualification to make up an A level. All A levels include an element of synoptic assessment designed to test a students´ ability to make connections between different aspects of the subject. Typically, new information is presented on topics that have been studied as part of the overall course and ask questions that require this new information to be interpreted in the context of the studied course material. The synoptic element generally contributes 20% to the final A level mark.
From the information presented in the sections above, it may appear that these qualifications are interchangable and will be accepted at face value by higher education establishments. At the risk of censure from visitors to the site, we feel it appropriate to point out that it may be worthwhile to consider the unit choices for A level carefully. That is to say, there may be a risk of some higher education establishments looking upon a series of completed units as AS level qualifications somewhat less favourably than the same number of completed units as part of full A levels. The justification for this warning may be made as follows:
Higher education builds on the foundations laid within the A level qualifications. Simply possessing an AS level qualification ("half an A level") may provide insufficient depth for students to understand the material presented as part of an undergraduate degree course. Teachers will generally provide guidance in this regard. We would strongly suggest that any such warnings be considered carefully.
At all previous stages in one's academic career, examined material has conformed to national standards. As students commence higher education, the nature of the assessment changes. By now the nature of the topics being studied are so specialised that proficiency may only be assessed by experts in the chosen field. For this reason, a University degree is conferred by the University itself, based on the results from examinations that are internal to that University. Similar principles apply to professional qualifications, such as those pertaining to law, accountancy and information technology.
In such instances, resources (such as past examination questions) may appear to be more difficult to obtain. In general, a good starting point are University libraries or the professional institution responsible for conferring the qualification.