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This blog entry was published in 2019. Click here to read The Good Schools Guide's advice relating to the coronavirus-affected A level results in 2020

A level retakes

By Kate Hilpern

As if it’s not bad enough that many of today’s A level students feel like guinea pigs in the new linear exam system – with many young people feeling bored and frustrated by the limitations compared to the old modular set-up – students across the country are terrified of screwing up. If they fail any of these new-style A levels, they will not only have to find a school or college which offers re-takes (not all do) but they will pay for it. Sometimes phenomenal amounts. And because the option to retake A levels in January is no longer available, young people also have to wait a whole year to the following summer.

Under the old modular system, you could retake an individual module that you didn’t do so well on. But now, you have to do the full set of exams again. Students whose school doesn’t offer this option -  as well as students who just can’t face going back to school with a bunch of younger classmates – are usually advised (by student websites) to visit (Council for Independent Education), which lists specialist independent colleges that do enable students to re-do the exams they need to get onto their chosen university course. But with costs of around £6,300 for one A level and a whopping £16,200 for three A level subjects, the cost is completely out of reach for many. It’s true you get very small class sizes, one-to-one tuition included, plus a large number of contact hours and a strong focus on exam techniques. But still, it’s incredibly expensive.

Students can do their retakes via an online course such as You can work through the material at your own pace and when it suits you, meaning you can volunteer or work alongside (good for your UCAS application). Plus, you can study where you want. You then book a place (around six months in advance) at a local school or college that will accept private candidates. But although these courses don’t cost thousands of pounds, many cost a few hundred, plus you have to pay the school or college an admin fee.

You can always go direct to a further education (FE) college. All offer A level retakes for external candidates and you have the option to study for them at home and just pay the required exam and/or invigilation fee. But it’s still not free – even if you only take the exam (with no teaching), you’re looking at a cost of around £85 per A level, while schools that allow re-takes also charge this amount.

On the upside, universities are much more lenient than they used to be towards people missing their grades, basically because they can now take as many students as they like. So anyone who doesn’t get the grades to achieve their conditional offer should first contact university admissions in case they’re not oversubscribed for the course. And if you had extenuating circumstances that hindered your performance during their A levels, you might find there are exemptions around this too. Alternatively, there’s always clearing or ditching the idea of university altogether and entering full-time work or an apprenticeship.

However, if you’re dead set on a university course – or career path such as medicine or engineering - whose criteria you don’t meet with your lower A level marks, retakes are really the only solution. This means officially declining the university offers by mid September before starting the process of retaking. If you do go down this (potentially expensive) road, it’s essential to identify why you screwed up the first time round as you’ll need to make some genuine improvement during your retakes. Your teachers may be able to help here, while your head of sixth form or class tutor should be able to give you more details about specific subject retakes.

Don’t worry about universities frowning on re-takes – they don’t and, in any case, declined A level grades are not shown anywhere, only certified grades. You will have to write another personal statement, but this will give you the chance to explain why it’s taken you extra time to do you’re a levels and if you use your year constructively (travelling, volunteering etc) you can explain that, as well as how the experience of re-taking exams has helped you develop as a person.

But as for cost, there’s really no escaping the expense of A level retakes. So if you think your exam results might not be quite what you’re hoping for, you better either start working very hard or dust off your piggy bank.



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