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Qualifications reform

Qualifications reform

The school education system has been undergoing a range of reforms, including changes to qualifications, funding and the appeals process. Some of these have had 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 updates on school and qualification reforms (doc)

Qualification reforms overview.PNG


Reformed A-levels in England and Wales were first taught in September 2015, and from Michaelmas term 2019 all applicants will have taken the new qualifications. The main change in England is the move back to two-year linear courses, which means that AS results will no longer contribute to the A-Level grade. This has, unsurprisingly, led to a dramatic reduction in the number of students taking standalone AS qualifications; there was a 44.1% decline in the number of entries in 2019, following a decline of 52.5% in 2018.

Grade standards have been carried forward from the legacy qualifications, so roughly the same pattern of grades should be expected, despite the change in structure. However, the way in which grade boundaries are set will change: grades will remain the same (A* to E), the method of calculating grades will change: grades E and A will continue to be key grade boundaries, using a range of evidence including senior examiner judgement of student work and statistical predictions, and grades B, C and D will continue to be set arithmetically. A* grades will be set using statistical predictions, rather than on student performance on different parts of the course.

 Reformed UK science A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics now have (from 2017 entry) a compulsory science practical element that 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:

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


GCSEs are also being reformed, and like A-Levels are returning to a linear structure with predominantly exam assessment at the end of the two-year course. Unlike A-Levels, however, GCSEs are being made more challenging. The majority of GCSEs have now been reformed, though applicants will continue to have mixed reformed and unreformed qualifications until the 2020 admissions round (entry in 2021).

To signal the change in standard between old and new GCSEs, a new grading scheme is being introduced, using 9 to 1 instead of A* to G. This will allow greater differentiation between students of different abilities. However, to aid comparison during the transition period, for the first award of each new GCSE broadly the same proportion of students will get a grade 4 or above as would have got a grade C or above under the previous system, and the old A* grade is considered to be equivalent of new grades 9 and 8. 2019 was also the first year that new National Reference Test (NRT) evidence was used in the awarding of GCSE English Language and GCSE Mathematics. The NRT was first taken in 2017, by a representative sample of around 20,000 Year 11 students, and is designed to provide a standardised benchmark against which to measure improvement in English and Mathematics.

 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, and aligning their A* grade with grade 9 only, and not grade 8 and 9 as is the case in England and Wales. 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 Cambridge Assessment IGCSEs in that schools can choose whether to retain A*-G or adopt 9-1. IGCSEs offered by Pearson and Oxford International AQA Examinations, however, have switched to 9-1 and will no longer provide A*-G grades for their candidates.

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 guidance from the DfE guidance and CCEA (the curriculum and assessment body in Northern Ireland); the main issue is the decision by CCEA to align their A* with the new grade 9, meaning that it will be difficult for us to distinguish the 8 equivalence automatically. UAO is in discussions with CCEA about this issue.

Given our cohort, the focus is on grades A*-A, but the following table shows the full range:

Reformed GCSEs.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.


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. A further review by the DfE of post-16 qualifications is expecting to be launched in spring 2020, and will consider which qualifications will attract public funding. It is also expected to determine the future of applied general qualifications.

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

T-Levels are being introduced to provide a single, high-quality route into particular industries. They will include a mixture of classroom learning and industry placements. Each T-Level will be the equivalent to three A-Levels, and will attract the same UCAS tariff points, so a Distinction A* at T-Level will be allocated the same tariff points as AAA* at A-Level, while Distinction will be allocated the same points as AAA at A-Level. The first T-Levels will start teaching in September 2020, and unlike other qualifications, only one awarding organisation will offer each T-Level.

The University’s position on T-Levels, and other technical or vocational qualifications, is that they are unlikely to provide the basis for a competitive application to Oxford; indeed T-Levels would not be fulfilling their primary purpose of providing skills and knowledge for employment or further training in particular industry sectors if they were also being designed to prepare students for academic study. However, candidates with vocational qualifications equivalent to A-levels (including the new T-Levels) are welcome to apply, although they may need to take additional academic qualifications to make a competitive application.

When reviewing applications, tutors should look for evidence of each candidate's academic strengths and their ability to thrive throughout an Oxford course; candidates with vocational qualifications are advised to use their personal statement to provide evidence of how their qualification(s) have prepared them for the course for which they are applying.

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.