What Were O Levels and What Were They Equivalent To?

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In other articles, we often look at the many different qualifications that are part of the UK education system nowadays. From giving you an overview of that qualification to zoning in on important specific details that you might need to know, we allow you to learn a lot more about some of these different qualifications.

However, it can also be important to look at qualifications that are no longer a part of the UK education system. This includes many different qualifications, including O Levels, and allows us to look at how these qualifications have shaped what the UK education system is today.

In short, O Level qualifications were a type of academic qualification that were studied in the UK between 1951 and 1987. Students were tested on these qualifications using exams only, although exactly how these written papers were graded changed 3 times during that period, from a simple pass and fail system to a numbered grading system and finally to a lettered grading system. These O Level qualifications were then replaced in 1986 by GCSEs.

Continue reading to learn more about O Levels, particularly in comparison to modern qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-Levels. This article will also give you more information about O Levels in general, such as when they were introduced and when and why they were discontinued.

What were O Levels?

If you’ve heard the term O Levels, the first thing you’ll probably learn is that they are no longer around in the UK. However, it can still be useful to understand what they were and how they were used to get a better understanding of how the UK education system previously worked.

O Levels were a type of qualification that students could study in the UK until they were replaced in 1986 by GCSEs. The full name of O Level qualifications is general certificate of education (GCE) ordinary levels.

These qualifications were designed to go alongside A-Level qualifications, which themselves stand for general certificate of education (GCE) of advanced levels. In this way, O Levels were designed to help students prepare for an advanced level of study and to demonstrate their academic ability.

For O Level qualifications, it was only possible for students to do academic subjects. Each of these would then be tested through exams.

You can learn more about this by checking out this guide by Pearson Edexcel.

What were O Levels equivalent to?

O Level qualifications are equivalent to GCSE and IGCSE qualifications. This means that they are also equivalent to the other modern level 2 qualifications. For more information about this, check out this guide by Cambridge International.

Level 2 qualifications, and by extension, other qualifications that O Levels are equivalent to, also include the following.

  • Level 2 BTECs/ CTECs
  • Level 2 NVQs/ SVQs
  • National 5 qualifications
  • Intermediate Apprenticeships/ Modern Apprenticeships

For more information about these qualifications, check out this Think Student article.

Also, O Level qualifications were also roughly equivalent to certificate of secondary education qualifications (CSEs). Like O Levels, these qualifications were also replaced by GCSEs.

The main differences between CSEs and O Levels are that CSEs could be taken in both academic and vocational subjects and were also tested using both coursework and exams, unlike O Levels. Also, the CSE and O Level grades didn’t match up exactly with the highest CSE grade indicates that a student could score highly on an O Level if they had done that instead. To learn more about CSEs, check out this guide by Pearson Edexcel.

Are O Levels the same as GCSEs?

As previously mentioned, GCSEs were introduced in 1986 to replace the O Level qualifications, as well as CSE qualifications. This might lead you to wonder whether GCSEs and O Levels are actually the same thing.

As we’ve already seen, GCSEs and O Levels are equivalent qualifications. However, it would be a bit of a push to call them the same.

This is because they are separate qualifications that each have different features and that are arranged differently. The main difference is that GCSEs have a wider curriculum and are aimed at a wider range of different students. On the other hand, O Levels have a narrower curriculum, including having much less options for coursework and practical testing, as well as being only aimed at stronger students.

As these simple differences in features also lead to other differences between the qualifications, it is clear that O Levels and GCSEs are not the same, although they are very similar in some respects. You can learn more about their features, by clicking on this link to the Cambridge International website.

Were O Levels harder than GCSEs?

Putting different qualifications against each other to decide which is harder can be incredibly difficult. This is particularly the case for qualifications, such as O Levels and GCSEs as in the UK, these different qualifications were never used at the same time. Due to this, students wouldn’t be familiar with having done both, making the question just that much harder to answer.

Despite this, if you know enough about both qualifications, a judgement can be made based on this.

In 2012, Laura McInerney presented the idea that no, O Level qualifications were not harder than GCSEs. McInerney presents this idea based on looking at O Level papers and GCSE papers and has thus decided that the content is comparable, with the GCSE papers being arguably harder due to the nature of the questions.

However, McInerney also says that O Levels were arguably harder as it was more difficult to achieve the tops grades, such as an A, in these exams compared to GCSEs. For more information about this, check out this article on the Laura McInerney website.

Please note that this is one opinion on whether O Levels were harder than GCSEs and that you are fully entitled to make up your own mind on the matter. It’s also important to note that this opinion is from 2012 and since then GCSEs in the UK have been reformed. This might also lead to a different response about whether O Levels or GCSEs are harder qualifications.

Do schools still do O Levels?

Having mentioned again and again in this article that O Levels were replaced by GCSEs and that they are no longer used in the UK, you might be wondering if there are any exceptions to these qualifications being discontinued.

While O Levels are no longer used in the UK, they are still offered as qualifications internationally. This is in a similar way to how the IGCSE qualification is offered. In fact, it is offered by one of the same exam boards that offer IGCSE qualifications, Cambridge International.

Cambridge International’s O Level qualification is internationally recognised by both universities and employers. This would mean that even in the UK, while O Level qualifications would no longer be accepted for a UK student, who took these qualifications after they were discontinued, they would be recognised as part of international qualifications for international students.

The examinations for these courses take place at a similar time to GCSEs. This is as they are either in June or in November with the results coming out in August or January. For more information about these, check out this page on the Cambridge International website.

Also, some of these O Level curriculums were specifically developed to meet local needs, this includes minority languages. To learn more about this and the other features of the Cambridge O Level qualifications, check out this guide on the Cambridge International website.

When were O Levels introduced?

While we’ve looked at when O Levels were replaced with GCSEs, we’ve not quite looked at when they first began and even why this was the case.

O Level qualifications were first introduced in 1951. This was to replace the School Certificate that had previously existed for students as they finished secondary school.

These then new O Level qualifications had been designed to prepare students for more rigorous academic study. This would then enable them to be able to take further qualifications, particularly A-Levels, later on.

If you would like to learn more about this and when other key moments in education after 1950 took place, check out this article on the Home of Assessment & Qualifications Insight (AQi) website.

Why were O Levels replaced with GCSEs?

While the reasoning isn’t 100% clear, the reason why O Levels and CSEs were replaced by GCSEs was due to the fact that the system was no longer working. This is because O Levels were only aimed at the top 20% of students. Then CSEs were aimed at the next 40% of students, meaning that the education system was only being targeted at 60% of students in the UK.

The idea of introducing the GCSE qualifications was thus to make the system work better for all students and stop it being so unfair. It also meant that there was only one qualification that students of that age would probably be taking, and no tier system made up of 2 separate qualifications.

This would also lead to greater benefits and prospectives for students as CSEs weren’t viewed as well as O Levels, even with the highest grade of a CSE, grade 1, and a grade C of O Levels, which were equal. However, as there is only one qualification for GCSEs, there couldn’t be this same division. For more information about why O Levels might have been replaced, check out this article by Channel 4.

What were the old O Level grades?

As previously mentioned, one of the main differences between the O Level qualifications and their more vocational equivalent, CSE qualifications, is that the grading didn’t quite match up. This is because while still equivalent O Levels were technically put at a higher level than CSEs.

Between their beginning in 1951 and their abolishment in 1987, O Level qualifications were graded in a range of different ways. This ranges from a pass and fail system to something more similar to the lettered system we know today.

Between 1951 and 1962, students would simply either pass or fail their O Level qualifications. If they achieved the “ordinary standard” in their subject, then they would achieve their Ordinary Level qualification.

If not, they would simply not have this qualification. In this time, the pass mark would generally be in the region of 45% or very literally 45/ 100 as that would be how it worked.

Later, between 1963 and 1974, the pass or fail system was still used in that this was all that was recorded on their certificates. However, in this period, most exam boards would use a numbered system from 1 to 9.

Unlike the GCSE numbered system that is used in England, 1 was the highest grade and 9 was the lowest. To receive a pass on their certificates, students would need to get a grade from 1 to 6.

Between 1975 and 1987, the lettered grading system was used. Once again, this wasn’t exactly like GCSEs as the grades only ranged from grade A to grade E. Unlike the past O Level grading systems, all of these grades were considered a pass, although only grades A, B and C would have previously been counted.

To learn more about how the old O Levels were graded, check out this page on the AQA website.

Nowadays, the Cambridge International O Level qualifications are graded using the lettered A* to E grading system. This is much more similar to other modern qualifications, particularly IGCSEs. To learn more about this, check out this guide by Cambridge International.

What age did you do O Levels?

As previously mentioned, O Level qualifications are the equivalent of GCSE and IGCSE qualifications. This is not only with their qualification level but primarily due to them being done at the same stage of education.

O Levels are taken at the end of secondary education, just like GCSEs. This means that students would typically be in Year 10 and Year 11, when they study for their O Levels and then be at the end of Year 11, when they actually take the exams.

In terms of their ages, this means that O Level students would have been between the ages of 14 and 16. For more information about this, check out this guide by Cambridge International. You can also look at this Think Student article for more about when you do GCSEs.

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