Qualifications reform | University of Oxford

Qualifications reform

Qualifications reform

The school education system is currently undergoing a range of reforms, including changes to qualifications, funding and the appeals process. Some of these will have a direct impact on the admissions process; candidates applying between Michaelmas 2016 and Michaelmas 2019 will be applying with a range of reformed and unreformed qualifications, and there will continue to be differences in qualifications taken by students in the different UK nations, though qualifications will retain the same names.

UAO has produced a summary of the Impact of qualifications and wider school reform (pdf).


Reformed A-levels in England and Wales were first taught in September 2015, with the first batch of results in reformed subjects arriving in summer 2017. The main change is that in England the AS-level is decoupled from the overall A-level, so AS results do not contribute to the overall A-level grade. As a result of this flexibility, schools and colleges are beginning to offer different patterns of provision.

Reformed UK science A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics now have (from 2017 entry) a compulsory science practical element which is reported separately from the headline grade as either P (Pass) or NC (Not Classified). From 2019, Geology A-level will also have a science practical element.

The University position, as outlined in the published FAQ on A-level reforms, is to request a Pass in this component for the science subjects, regardless of the course for which the offer is made. Details are given on the 'Making offers' tab for how to set this condition, and in the Confirmation section in terms of examination results.

The UCAS website also has a series of useful resources aimed at advisers and universities:

The Ofqual blog is a useful resource for technical queries, as is the main DfE page bringing together qualifications reform guides.

Ongoing updates

Qualifications reform will continue to affect applications for a number of years yet. A timeline of when reformed GCSEs and A-levels will be introduced and which admissions cycles they will affect is as follows:

Qualifications reform by admissions round

For any queries, please contact UAO Admissions Operations or UAO Policy.


Reforms are being made to GCSEs, with predominantly exam assessment at the end of the two-year course. English language, English literature, and Mathematics are changing first, with first results in summer 2017. Reform is being staggered by subject, so there will be students with both reformed and unreformed GCSEs for several years (until 2020 when reforms are complete).

Reformed GCSEs in England now have a grading scheme from 9-1 instead of A*-G, while Wales and Northern Ireland are retaining the alphabetical grading system. This means that universities have been expected to think about equivalencies between numeric grades and letter grades. Ofqual has set anchor points between the old and new grading scales for qualifications in England, and exam boards will use statistical evidence to make sure that, broadly speaking:

  • the same proportion of candidates will achieve a grade 4 and above as currently achieve a C and above (the alignment being at the bottom of each grade)
  • the same proportion of students will chieve a grade 7 and above as currently achieve an A and above
  • grade 9 will be awarded to approximately the top 20% of those who get grade 7 or above, although this will be calculated differently by subject; once all reforms are complete it is expected to be ~5% of awards (compared to ~8% receiving A*)
  • the bottom of grade 1 will be aligned with the bottom of grade G

Although in England this will lead eventually to a position where students will generally only have the numerical grades, both Wales and Northern Ireland will be retaining the alphabetical grades, with Northern Ireland adding an additional C* grade to their awards. It is also the case that in Northern Ireland and Wales schools will be able to offer some GCSEs using the numeric grades, particularly in the case of those subjects with low numbers (e.g. Latin and Greek) where it is economically nonviable to provide multiple versions of qualifications. There is an extra complication with iGCSEs in that schools can choose whether to retain A*-G or adopt 9-1.

Our approach

Internally, the University has decided equivalencies for numeric and letter grades, so that data items such as the Contextualised GCSE score can be calculated fairly for applicants with old, new, and mixed qualifications. This equivalency is based on DfE guidance, the Ofqual 'postcard', and points values for GCSEs in 2016 and 2017. Given our cohort, the focus is on grades A*-B, but the following table shows the full range:

GCSE grades comparison.PNG

This means that:

  • A*, 9 and 8 are all considered equivalent (with no higher weighting in calculations given to 9 over 8)
  • A and 7 are considered equivalent
  • C, C*, 5 and 4 are all considered equivalent (with no higher weighting given to C* or 5)

These changes also mean that some items appear differently in ADSS:

  • Field/column names which previously included letter grades now include both, e.g.
    GCSE 9/8/A* countNormalised GCSE 9/8/A* score
  • The GCSE grade summary now categorises achieved grades by these equivalences, e.g.

In October 2017 we saw a small number of applicants, who have done reformed GCSEs ( taken in a single year) and are likely to receive a larger proportion of numerical GCSEs for 2019 entry. 


Applied General Qualifications (including BTECs)

The Department for Education is currently reforming vocational qualifications, and they are now classified as either Applied General or Technical qualifications. Applied General qualifications include BTECs, Cambridge Technical Diplomas, and UAL Diplomas. The largest provider of vocational qualifications is Pearson, with the BTEC qualification, but AQA, City & Guilds, OCR, and other boards all offer vocational qualifications in these categories. 

Oxford currently welcomes applicants with BTEC National qualifications, but because of the academic nature of the undergraduate courses at Oxford, most of these qualifications would not be suitable for making a competitive application by themselves, though they could be considered if taken alongside A-Levels, depending on the course applied for. Our published criteria are on the UK Qualifications page. Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have course level requirements  for applicants with BTEC. 

When considering applications, tutors would want to see evidence of learning and assessment that would provide the skills and knowledge the candidate would need for the course they are applying for. Candidates are therefore advised to include in their UCAS personal statement information on how their qualification has prepared them for the course they are applying to.

A D grade (distinction) in an Applied General qualification would be considered equivalent to an A at A-level, and a D* in a BTEC National would be considered equivalent to an A* at A-level

UCAS has produced a Guide to Applied General and Tech level qualifications to help Universities consider the impact these vocational reforms may have. 

Vocational and Technical Qualifications

Candidates with vocational qualifications equivalent to A-levels (including the new T-Levels) are welcome to apply, although candidates may need to take additional academic qualifications to make a competitive application.

When reviewing applications, tutors look for evidence of each candidate's academic strengths and their ability to thrive throughout an Oxford course. Academic qualifications such as A-levels, the International Baccalaureate or any other academic equivalent are therefore strongly recommended as the best preparation for any course of study at Oxford.

We also recognise the achievements of students who hold vocational, professional or other qualifications, and these will be taken into account during the admissions procedure. Given the academic focus of all Oxford courses, candidates are unlikely to be able to make a competitive application if they have not studied academic courses to A-Level standard within the last two years, whatever other qualifications they may already have completed.

IB Career-related Programme

The University does not accept the IB Career-related Programme as it does not provide sufficient opportunity to develop the academic skills and knowledge necessary to make a competitive application.