Quick summary on A-level sciences:
You have the choice of regular UK A-levels, or CIE (Cambridge) International A-levels. UK science A-levels have moved to a new system in which the AS is a separate, optional qualification and not part of the A-level, while CIE International A-levels retain the old AS and A2 structure.
For CIE International A-levels, there is a one-off practical exam which is offered at a few centres in the UK.
For new A-levels, you can take the exams without doing any practicals, but the qualification will not then have the 'practical endorsement', which universities are likely to require for science-related courses. The practical endorsement requires a programme of practicals, though it is possible to do this during a residential course lasting a few days at a few UK exam centres.
New AS-level sciences do not have a practical endorsement.
More details on all of this below.
A-Level Changes Edit
Which? University summarises the changes to A-levels:
Old vs new system
Under the old system being phased out, AS-levels were studied in Year 12, with exams taken in May-June that were worth 50% of your overall A-level qualification.
Under the new system being introduced, all A-level exams will take place at the end of Year 13, with no marks from AS-levels (if you take these) contributing to the overall final grade.
Across the board, there will also be less coursework and fewer practical assessments under the new system (in Wales, practicals will still count in biology, chemistry and physics A-level) - making that exam revision all the more important. Grades will continue to be awarded on an A*-E scale.
What's happening to AS-levels?
AS-levels will still exist, and you can continue to take a separate AS-level qualification at the end of Year 12 before dropping the subject or going on to take the full A-level in Year 13 - but unlike before, your AS results won't count towards your A-level grade.
New A-level Sciences Edit
This is for AS exams from summer 2016 and full A-level exams from summer 2017.
You can do the new science A-levels without doing practical work, but this means your certificate won't have the "practical endorsement" on it. Apparently most unis will require this endorsement if you want to study a science subject at university. It's hard to imagine it would matter much if you were applying to study unrelated subjects. If you do wish to have the practical endorsement, there are routes, but they tend to be expensive - see below.
AS-level science qualifications do not have a practical endorsement, although the question papers do contain questions on carrying out practical work.
Do you need the Practical Endorsement? Edit
UCAS has given the following advice in its Guide to Qualification Reform:
From 2015, revised science A levels in England (biology, chemistry and physics) will include a separate result for the practical element of the qualification.
At present, up to 30% of the overall A level grade is derived from assessment of the candidate’s practical skills.
Practical work in the new science A levels will be assessed in two ways. First, 15% of the marks in the written exams will assess learners’ understanding of practical work. Learners’ performance here will contribute to their subject grade. Second, learners will have their practical skills assessed separately. They will receive an additional pass or fail result for this, which will be recorded on their qualification certificate. Each learner will carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities over their two-year course of study. These activities will be referenced in the final written exams and will contribute to their separate practical result, although evidence of competency in the practical skills is not limited to these activities.
Individual universities and colleges will have their own policies in relation to the science practical result and the requirement for it is likely to vary. However, it is likely that they will ask for a pass in the science practical for courses that involve laboratory and practical work from the outset, such as STEM courses. Where this is the case, they will make it clear in their entry requirements.The Russell Group 'Informed Choices' booklet states:
How do Russell Group universities view practical science assessments at A-level?
Russell Group universities value practical skills learnt during the study of science at A-level, which lay the foundation for studying at undergraduate level. In future, pupils in England will receive a separate ‘pass/fail’ mark for their science A-levels.
Entry requirements vary between courses and institutions. Many Russell Group universities will expect students with A-levels in science to have a ‘pass’ in the practical science element. It is important for prospective students to check university entry requirements.
OCR's guide to the A-level changes in Science says:
How will a fail in the Practical Endorsement affect students’ university applications?
The majority of universities will ask for a pass at offer stage for STEM subjects and this will be made clear in their entry criteria for a specific course. Admissions requirements are under the control of universities, and vary by course and institution. The universities will take on students at their own discretion and hence this should not be a deterrent to students when applying.
Science community lobby group SCORE, in representations to university admissions staff, has written this:
Why should the practical science endorsement be part of the offer for science-based degree courses?
Asking for the endorsement alongside the main grade for A-levels in biology, chemistry and physics, ensures that students obtain the vital skills that practical science develops. Passing the practical endorsement indicates a student has developed the experimental skills which the SCORE partners consider essential to developing a comprehensive understanding of science subjects, and the applicant’s ability to succeed in degree-level study.
Should a student be accepted onto a course if they fail the practical endorsement?
Practical skills are an integral part of learning science and provide students with important transferable skills. It is vital that the practical endorsement is explicitly mentioned in published entry criteria and offers. The SCORE partners would encourage you to distinguish between public statements of admissions policy, which we strongly recommend should refer to the need to pass the endorsement, and any individual student who may have failed to achieve the practical element, for example due to ill health. [my emphasis]
Distance learning provider NEC has an article on studying A-level sciences from home, suggesting ways that students can take A-level sciences without the practical endorsement. The comments should be read alongside the article as they highlight some concerns.
How can I do new Science A-level Practicals? Edit
You can qualify for the new practical endorsement by attending a short course at a tutorial centre. There is also the theoretical possibility of arranging for the exam board to verify arrangements you have made yourself.
Some of the tutorial centres which currently offer A-level practicals are moving to a series of classes to meet the new requirements for reformed A-levels. A one-off exam won't be sufficient any more; you need to have completed key practicals. See the list of exam centres which offer practical assessments, below.
You should be able to do the practical assessments at a tutorial centre, and then take your written exams at a different centre. AQA has confirmed in writing to the Faregos Home Education exam centre that this is possible, and it is likely that other exam boards will also allow this - but do check first.
Edexcel have published FAQs on the new CPAC (Core Practical Assessment somethings...) which specifically mention external candidates. They seem to be saying that a tutor/parent/group which has home educated A-level science candidates could arrange direct with Edexcel for them to do the science practical assessments on your own territory, much as if they'd gone out to check on a school's practicals. This would be to arrange in practice, but is potentially an option. Here's the relevant extract:
(2) If you prepare candidates for examinations, but the students sit exams as private candidates at a host centre (i.e. you are not a registered centre yourself), then the JCQ process does not cover you. Past experience shows that centres who accept private candidates only do so for written exam papers, not for practical ones - so it is very unlikely that the host school would accept the student for theEndorsement. If you wish your students to gain the Endorsement, then you would need to contact the Pearson Science team and arrange a separate monitoring visit. If your students are distance learners, home schooled, or have an arrangement that limits their access to laboratory facilities, then you would need to demonstrate how these students are gaining access to the mandatory techniques and apparatus, across a minimum of 12 practical activities. If this is not possible, then the students would not be able to gain the practical endorsement.
What if I can't do the practical assessment? Edit
It is always worth contacting universities to explain your situation, as there is a vast difference between someone who failed the practical assessment, and someone who simply didn't have the opportunity to take it.
UCAS recommends that applicants who do not have the science practical endorsement should contact universities to discuss their situations as "The universities will take on students at their own discretion and hence this should not be a deterrent to students when applying."
The science in education lobby group SCORE advises university admissions staff to use their discretion:
The SCORE partners would encourage you to distinguish between public statements of admissions policy, which we strongly recommend should refer to the need to pass the endorsement, and any individual student who may have failed to achieve the practical element, for example due to ill health.(source for quotes in 'Do you need the practical endorsement?')
Keeping a record of your own practical work Edit
If you are not sure whether you will be able to get the practical endorsement, you could still keep a detailed record, notebook, blog or photo diary of your independent practical work to show that you have experience of this. You would at least have your own portfolio of science practical work to show in future if anyone queried why your A-level certificate does not show a pass in practical work. The specifications for the A-level science qualifications explain what practical work should involve and how records should be kept (look out for downloads and teachers' guides on the exam board pages for each syllabus).
If you are doing independent practical work at home, there are two American books which you may find very helpful, by Robert Bruce Thompson. They are the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, and the Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments. They are aimed at US High School syllabuses but much will be relevant to the UK syllabuses. They have good explanations on detailed record-keeping and how to build up a good lab notebook, as well as advice on conducting practical investigations at home.
There may be a chemistry club or workshops run at a university as a short course that you could attend, whether for experience or specifically to help prepare for the practical assessments. For example:
International A-levels Edit
CIE (Cambridge) International A-levels are available in the UK. They still have November and June sittings, and retain the traditional structure - ie AS-levels contribute to the final A-level grade.
CIE gives the following explanation of CIE International A-levels and the A-level changes:
Will the Cambridge International AS Level be affected by the changes?
No. ..UK AS Levels will no longer contribute to A Level outcomes and instead be separate, standalone qualifications. ..This proposal does not affect Cambridge International AS Level. Our November and June exam series already offer students a number of assessment routes in their Cambridge International A Level studies. These options still apply. Students can:* take all components of the Cambridge International A Level in one sitting (the linear route)
- follow a staged assessment route by taking all Cambridge International AS Level components in one exam series and completing the final Cambridge International A Level in a subsequent series
- take Cambridge International AS Level as a standalone option.
Edexcel International A-levels have no coursework - they offer exam-only assessment for all subjects, including sciences. They are NOT available in the UK, but you can take them at overseas Edexcel centres. Home-educators have attempted to persuade Pearson Edexcel to allow them to take International A-levels in the UK, but they have refused.
Old 'Legacy' A-Levels Edit
Final full science A-level exams were held in summer 2016. Resit-only opportunity in summer 2017. One-off practical exams; see the exam centres below. Maths A-levels will not change until 2018 for AS and 2019 for A2.
Exam Centres for Science A-level Practicals Edit
All Physics, Chemistry and Biology A-level science exams available in the UK include an option for practical endorsement (New A-levels), or compulsory practical exam (legacy specifications & CIE International A-levels). Overseas students also have the option of Edexcel International A-levels with no practical test, but this cannot be taken in the UK.
AS-level sciences do not have the practical endorsement, so you don't need to obtain the endorsement unless you are doing the full A-level.
Marine Science (CIE International A-level) is a full International A-level & has no coursework/controlled assessment.
Here are some test centres for practical science tests. Note that fees quoted by exam centres are often per module, so make sure the exam centre confirms what they are offering for the price. The prices below may not be current but will give you an idea.
If you know of other exam centres offering this option, please leave a comment.
Macclesfield Tutorial College - All boards including CIE and November exams. "We are an approved centre for the AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC and CIE examination boards. We accommodate all the standard subjects, and will try to accept entries for the less popular subjects too – just ask. At the examination centre, you are able to take GCSE, IGCSE and GCE (AS and A Level) examinations. The centre has the facilities for science practicals and also most language speaking examinations."
Greene's Tutorial College in Oxford is offering intensive science practical courses as well as the exams, plus foundation courses for those with little experience of lab work before A-level.
Pembrokeshire Online College - correspondence courses for A-level sciences, and also offer intensive week-long science practical courses with an exam at the end. Recommended by various members of HE-Exams Yahoogroup. You have to stay in Pembrokeshire to do the practical week. The intensive practical course and exam is available separately from the correspondence course, but the pricing structure means that the correspondence course is only a small additional cost.
3A Tutors in Bristol offer 5-day workshops to obtain the practical endorsement. Well-established centre, very popular with home educators.
Tutors And Exams, Coventry - new, private exam centre which opened Summer 2015. All A-levels, including science practicals. Works out at £960 for a full science A-level.
London Brookes College, NW4 - science practicals classes/ assessments for AQA, OCR and Edexcel.
Oak Heights in Hounslow, London- AQA, was charging very low rates for the legacy A-level practicals at only £65 a module and £50 per written module .We don't yet know if they are offering practicals for new A-levels.
Pascal's College, Beckenham, South London - All A-level boards, all sciences, including practical exams. Approx £1,000 for a full A-level including exams and practicals.
Rochester Independent College, Kent - progressive college with very relaxed atmosphere. Awaiting confirmation but it seems they are now offering A-level science practicals.
A Level Science involves a “practical skills assessment” for Unit 3 and Unit 6 (essentially, coursework/controlled assessment pieces that are based on practical laboratory-based work). We run courses for AS and A2 Biology from the end of January/February and the end of April. AS and A2 Chemistry and Physics courses generally take place during the Easter break – between the end of March and mid-April. These courses are popular so you should try to book early. If you are interested in one of these courses, please e mail us (firstname.lastname@example.org) to request more information or a booking form.
It may be possible for you to complete these practical units for other exam board’s specifications on an individual/small group tuition basis – subject to tutor availability. Please enquire.BioGrad in Liverpool - offer laboratory skills short courses and residentials for the A-level syllabuses, and currently working on offering A-level practical assessments and endorsements. They hope that it will be possible for you to take the practical element with them during a residential course, and then sit your written papers at your local exam centre. Please contact them to check progress.