OCR’s Amy Brewer explains the benefits of the new post-16 qualifications carefully designed to complement A-levels and T-levels

An illustration of a pencil split into different science items including a clamp, a conical flask and an energy saving lightbulb

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Alternative Academic Qualifications will empower students with new study options and future prospects

Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs) are a suite of qualifications intended to provide a complementary alternative to traditional A-levels and T-levels. From 2025, they will become the only qualifications to exist alongside these post-16 study options. AAQs will give students the essential skills and knowledge they need to prepare for entry into higher education and university.

Students will be able to choose an academic pathway – completing A-levels, or a combination of at A-levels, and one AAQ – or a technical pathway (T-levels). In the first cycle of the reforms, where science qualifications sit, only small AAQs (equivalent to one A-level) are being approved for funding.

T-levels, on the other hand, offer a more technical route for students, with the goal of progression into employment. Students study one T-level ­– in health or science, for example – which is equivalent to three A-levels. Work placement, arranged and managed by the learning centre, will constitute 20% of a student’s time.

Level 3 qualifications like BTECs and Cambridge Technicals in science subjects that are larger than an A-level won’t be funded from July 2025. The first new AAQs will begin in September 2025.

Preparing the ground

Here at OCR, we submitted our cycle 1 AAQs to Ofqual at the end of July for review, and we expect to hear if we met the full criteria for funding approval in spring 2024. While we wait, we will be preparing mapping documents, delivery guides, textbooks and other resources, ready for September 2025.

We’re creating support materials based on what teachers have told us they find useful in delivering the course, and what supports their students. These include exemplars for marking assignments, mathematics resources and practical handbooks, with a specific focus on supporting non-specialist science teachers.

Psychological shift

During the consultation and redevelopment process, we’ve talked to lots of teachers who have expressed their concerns about what these changes will mean for their students. Students who would otherwise have taken the larger diploma qualifications instead of A-levels will face the greatest change. Also, some centres have said they can’t offer science T-levels, but still need accessible options for students who find 100% terminal examination qualifications challenging.

To address this, OCR has been working on improving the accessibility of our A-levels in psychology and sociology, to make them available for a wider range of students. Schools told us that A-levels in these subjects would be most appropriate because students don’t need a relevant GCSE to move on to these courses, and they are popular options.

Despite the concerns outlined above, we know teachers will enjoy the new breadth of content afforded by the AAQs, and the wide variety of applicable skills students can develop by studying them. Teachers have told us they believe the AAQs ‘will set [students] up well for further studies’ and that they think they will, ‘help students understand how to begin researching science and to experience what it means to be a scientist’. One teacher commented that, ‘If I was teaching this … I would be very happy’.

Built-in benefits

A key benefit of the AAQs is that they provide some of the practical skills and contextual knowledge not currently offered at A-level, while still enabling students to pursue an academic pathway. The new Cambridge Advanced Nationals in Applied science and human biology, for example, have been designed to help students progress to science-based higher education.

Students will work with their teachers to complete 60% of the qualification through assignments set by OCR, and will have two opportunities per year to sit the remaining 40% external assessment written papers. They will choose two optional units providing insight into the careers they might progress to and how professionals use the science knowledge and communication skills covered in the course content to carry out their roles.

Overall, I believe the way the AAQs have been designed, with a combination of flexibility, critical scientific thinking and core practical skills in mind, provides the perfect complement to the existing suite of post-16 qualifications on offer. Students and teachers will both benefit from the enriching and diverse course content on this new pathway to higher education.

You can find more information about AAQs from OCR, or get in touch with the science subject advisor team.

Amy Brewer is a science subject advisor at OCR