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Exams your child will face in Secondary School

Examinations are rites of passage in a child's life: defining moments by which much that happens before or after is measured.

A lot rides on them too: a coveted University place, or the entrance onto the training course to follow the career the child has always dreamed of.

Yet for many parents and those not directly involved in schools, the examination system is a confusing set of acronyms, levels and grades. This article will help to demystify some of the jargon and explain exactly what goes on.

For each set of examinations covered, it will look at what the exams consist of and what the exam 'means' to the child and the future of their academic career.

Key Stage Three Standard Assessment Tests (SATs)
Tests at the end of Year 7 and 8 (ages 11 and 12 years) are now growing in importance and are a useful preparation for the KS3 SATs, designed to measure a child's progress in the first three years of Secondary school. As well as sitting papers in English, Maths and Science, the child's teachers will produce Teacher Assessment levels which are seen to be as important as the formal Tests.

What is covered?

  • English: Reading, writing; a scene from a Shakespeare play prepared in class.
  • Mathematics: Algebra, handling data, measuring, number, shape and space, mental arithmetic.
  • Science: Physics, Biology and Chemistry.
  • Most children score between levels 3 and 7, with 5 being the average.
  • For children who are not expected to reach Level 3, alternative Tests are run in the classroom with teacher support.
  • For higher achievers there is the option of sitting the extension paper in each subject. If they do well enough, the child is awarded level 8 or EP - exceptional performance. The school will provide further information if they recommend entering your child.
The SATs results arrive in school by the end of the year. They may be used to help set or band students for GCSEs, but have no more bearing than that. They are not mandatory outside the state sector and thus many Independent schools do not hold the Tests.

General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs)

At the same time as your child is involved in the KS3 Tests, they will need to choose their GCSE options. These are the most important exams that a child has yet had to face, as the results have a real bearing on their future. They are often the passport to further study: if the child is going to stay on at school / college for A Levels or GNVQs, GCSE grades are an important indicator of ability and potential; if they are hoping to begin an apprenticeship or other work-based training, GCSEs are a valuable proof of commitment.

The curriculum:
  • Obligatory subjects are Maths and English, as well as a science, a modern foreign language and Design and Technology (which may be studied as short courses).
  • The student can opt for a variety of other GCSE courses.
  • All the exams have two or more papers and a coursework component. Modern Languages and English include oral / aural assessments, while other subjects include a practical component.
  • Information Technology, Physical Education, Religious Education, sex education and careers guidance are also mandatory and run alongside GCSE studies.
  • Pass Grades are awarded from A* to G.
  • A* is awarded to the very highest band of A grades.
  • Mainly for historical reasons, the C/D borderline is an important one (it is seen as the equivalent to the old O Level pass) and students will be pushed to gain a C if at all possible.
  • Students who are not expected to achieve a G grade may earn a Certificate of Achievement.
Schools usually hold 'mocks' at some time in Year 11 (often just before or after Christmas, or around the February half term), which give students valuable examination practice, enable them to see 'real' GCSE papers and crucially allow them to see the aspects that they need to work hardest on before the real exams in May and June.

Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced Level

A Levels are the final set of exams that may be taken at secondary school (if the school has a Sixth Form), or at college. They are the traditional entry requirements to university.

Recently the courses were updated. Now students can follow a course of study at an Advanced level for one year only and gain a recognised qualification (AS) at the end of it, whilst simultaneously studying for A Levels. This broadens the academic range of students: for example, someone studying three sciences to A level can also study History for a year. Universities welcome students with a greater breadth of knowledge and it also provides a more balanced diet of study for those heading for employment or training.

Timing of the exams:
  • Examinations (modules) may be held at various fixed times throughout the two-year A Level period.
  • Most students enter for the AS modules (A1) during the first year and the second part of the A level (A2) at the end of the course.
  • Some students sit both A1 and A2 at the end of two years, like the old A Levels.
General National Vocational Qualifications

Part One GNVQ develops general work-related knowledge and skills for students. It is designed to be studied alongside GCSEs or other qualifications and is now generally available in schools and colleges. It is available at Foundation and Intermediate level in various vocational areas, including Business, Leisure and Tourism and manufacturing. Two thirds of the final grade is based on a portfolio of work built up over the course.

Part Two GNVQ runs parallel to A Level courses along the same lines. GNVQs at higher levels can be studied at Further Education institutions.

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