China Education Television features A-levels at Kings
Last year around 600,000 students from China went overseas to study. As more and more Chinese students start to study abroad at high school level, Kings was invited by China Education Television Station (CETV) to answer Chinese parents' questions about A-level education in the UK in its 'Study Abroad' programme, aired in November.
Kings Director Andrew Hutchinson and Regional Director for China Anna Trott were interviewed by CETV host Xiaoshan Yuan, and gave advice for international students about taking A-levels and preparing for university in the UK.
Welcome Andrew and Anna to join us today. What course options do we have for high schools in the UK? How could we choose the right course?
Andrew Hutchinson: First of all, students from overseas who come to the UK typically go to one of three types of schools — traditional boarding school, state school or international boarding school. They have those three options of schools that they can choose.
Anna Trott: In terms of courses, you mentioned IB (International Baccalaureate) and A-level — for high school, those are two of the main options that students can take.
For the UK, A-level is the most popular, and that would be what most British students will take. So for international students coming to the UK, I would say that probably their best preparation could be A-level courses. They are following the same preparation that British students will take to go to university.
Typically that's a two-year course. And they would study three, sometimes four subjects. The A-level exam is often referred to as the 'gold standard'. It’s recognized all over the world. Therefore, having A-level qualifications will mean the student will be able to access all of the top universities. And of course, in the UK, the top ranked universities like Oxford and Cambridge, will require students to have A-levels. So students who are looking to go to those universities — not just Oxford and Cambridge, it could also be schools like University College London, and London School of Economics — they are the best pathway to get into those.
We know that there are different subject options for A-level. How to choose subjects? Do we have to decide degree major before university? Based on your experience, what's the favorite subjects for Chinese students?
Anna: Quite a big difference between the US and UK is that high school students [in the UK] are starting to get relatively specialized. They would just choose three, potentially four, subjects. It doesn't mean that they have to choose their major already, but they are starting to focus on what they are interested in. It's good, because it means they don't have to do the subjects they don't like.
When they are choosing, there are three things they should consider. The first thing they definitely should think about is what they are going to study in university. So if there is a particular major they are interested in, are there some subjects they have to study. For example, if they want to do Medicine, they must do Sciences; if Music, they should have done some higher level of instrument in high school.
It's also important for them to think about what subjects they enjoy, because they are going to study it to quite a deep level for two years. Then if they continue in university, it needs to be something they feel they are passionate about, otherwise they can't get their best results.
And finally, they have to look at where their strengths are. For example, if they really enjoy drawing but they really haven’t got much ability, then it's probably not the best idea to study that! Instead, they could do that in their spare time. So choose the subjects carefully.
I would suggest for Chinese students, a lot of them will typically follow Science subjects, Business is popular, Maths is a subject they enjoy. They are very strong at it so it's not so challenging for them, which is important for them considering studying overseas and all the challenges they are going to have.
Hypothetically, if after A-level I want to change my major direction, should I re-do A-level or just learn some new subjects?
Anna: With A-levels, you could take three very different subjects. For example, you might do Maths, something like Art, and add to that History. Even if there are only three subjects, you have actually got a big range behind you.
Of course, some degrees have specific requirements. To go back to the previous example, if you want to study Medicine, you need to have Sciences — if you hadn’t studied those, then you decide you want to study Medicine in university, then yes, you need to do it again. For the most part, students wouldn’t re-take A-levels though.
We all know that a lot of preparation is required for university application. What do we need to prepare for A-level applications?
Andrew: First, you need high school education. You need at least ten years of schooling to do A-levels successfully. You need to be demonstrating strong proficiency in your academic subjects. That will vary from school to school, key schools in China will be different. We would say, broadly speaking, you want to be aiming for about 70% in all your classes. So academic proficiency is one thing.
English language proficiency is another requirement to do A-levels most successfully — maybe with the exception of Mathematics, but most subjects require a high level of English proficiency in order to really succeed. A minimum requirement of IELTS 5.5 would allow you to start, because that usually ensures that you finish with at least 6.5 or 7.0 after 18 months of study.
In addition to the academic qualifications and English language proficiency, you have to be at a minimum age of 16, or nearly 16. University will only accept you when you are 18 or rising 18 in your first term. A-level is a two-year course of study, so you need to be 16 years old.
When is the best timing to start these preparations?
Anna: About a year before going abroad, in terms of doing your research for schools. Because, as Andrew mentioned, there are different types of schools in the UK. And I think it’s important that students take time to just understand what those different schools are and which one they are most suited to.
If possible, it's good for students to go and take a summer course, a year before or even two years before they plan to go away. It's a really good way to go and experience a few different cities, get a feeling of where they might like to go. Because it's academic preparation, and you’ve got to make sure that the environment will suit you. That is a really important element. So the more you can understand that, the better.
On the academic side, probably a year to focus on improving your English. I think that's going to be the key element before you go. The stronger your English is, the quicker you will be able to settle, and obviously take advantage of all opportunities in the UK.
In terms of organizing your visa and so on, that doesn’t have to take too long. You can start preparing that a couple of months before you go.
Based on your experience with more and more younger Chinese students, what’s their biggest challenge — English, or something else?
Andrew: With the exception of Maths and some science-related subjects where the proficiency of English is less important, in most subjects the ability to progress and show your academic knowledge is expressed through English. So the better you are at that, the more likely you are to show your best self.
Equally, when you are feeling self-confident in lots of different environments within English, it means you will give your better self. It is a crucial part, as well as your age and your academic ability.
Anna: There is one other part. The Chinese education system tends to put a lot more focus on the teacher, and they will give all the knowledge to the students. Students need to be relatively passive and learn to remember for the exams, which makes students, in terms of exam preparation, usually very talented and good at that area.
When they come to the UK, the emphasis is much more on students researching and developing ideas themselves, questioning the teacher and debating with their classmates. That's something Chinese students find challenging, because it’s a different environment for them. So it could take a little while for them to settle in and to learn a different way of approaching their studies.
Anna mentioned visiting schools, even for just a tour or summer course, to experience the environment and see if it suits you. I think every school has its own speciality and direction. Could you introduce what's special about A-level courses at Kings?
Andrew: Our job is to ensure that we give the best possible preparation for international students to go into our UK's fine higher education establishments. We have about 120 universities in the UK, some of which are the highest in global ranking. Ranking is very important in China, and our role is to prepare students to get into the Top 30 or Top 40 UK universities across a wide range of subjects.
We are an international boarding school with students from 80 different countries all over the world, including from Britain. Those students are all aiming for a successful career, having gone through a university, that their parents will feel proud of. Our job is to ensure we get them there.
We teach in small classes of approximately 8–10 students per class, so all the tutors get to know their students very, very well. We have a highly personalized focus on each student's study plan, recognizing that every student is different right from the start, so not everybody will do exactly the same course of the study, not everybody will be treated in exactly the same way. But they will all have a tutor assigned to them. Regular feedback from the tutors also reports back to their parents. After about one year, they will have a clearer idea of which discipline they are looking to study in university.
At the end of Year One or the beginning of Year Two, they will go to visit universities with our tutors' help to decide on particular universities, usually 4 or 5, where they will get offers from. Increasingly in the UK, universities are starting to make unconditional offers based on students' profiles, so it’s really important that we work very closely with each student to ensure their profile is ready for the university, which is the right one for them.
It's not all about academics — we have a full enrichment programmes, recognizing that all these students from all different nationalities need to integrate into the global community as well. We have activities, clubs and societies taking place every day. But it is a strong academic environment, and students need to be aware beforehand that A-level is quite an intensive programme.
I like the personalized study plan mentioned by Andrew. There is no exact same study plan, it's customized. I believe it’s for better taking care of the students. So what else have Kings done to benefit students?
Andrew: A good example will be students who want to go into the legal field. We have specialist classes for students who want to go into Law, like visiting the law courts, particular libraries, and encouraging students to take part in Debating Society. It's about trying to immerse themselves in a culture of law.
If you are talking about Business, we do frequent visits to the City of London where students could have tours around well-known businesses like HSBC headquarters in London. So it's extracurricular activities as well as the purely academic lessons.
How can you guarantee the best interest of students, especially safety?
Anna: There are two elements to safety. The first is accommodation. All our students have a choice to be in our residential accommodation or they will stay with homestay families. We have background checks for the homestay families, so we know that they are good families and students are going to be very safe. With the residences, all of them are locked. Our students have to use cards or keys to enter, so no-one can come in if they are not staying in the residence or are not part of our school. There will be a warden there who is available 24 hours a day, and an emergency telephone number so the students, at any time, if they feel they need someone, are able to go and contact them.
On the other side, it's getting used to a different lifestyle and environment, which is also a part of safety. So sometimes, parents might feel they want their child to be in a boarding school in a very quiet area with fields around, because they will feel there is no-one around, so therefore it's safer. I can understand that point of view, but I think there is also an element that you are preparing your child to go to university as well as to be in the real world, that also involves learning life skills, learning about how to be street-wise, and more independent. That's something we focus on a lot.
So the school will have a curfew, a time that students must be home, and they always have an emergency number — but they are able to go out of the school in the early evening and at lunch time. They build that independence while they have got their support network right there. So that means they are learning to be independent — and that builds safety.
Andrew: If students are 15–18 years old, for the parents this is a very important decision, probably the most important decision and the most important investment they will ever make. To answer those concerns about safety and welfare, we fully recognize that, as Anna said, we have a whole welfare network set around the students. It is a security net, of wardens and residential accommodation etc. However, we do try to allow them to fly a little, in order to prepare themselves for university. That's our job.
The next question is a focus of most parents and students. It's about progression and graduation. What's the progression result of A-level students on average in the UK and at Kings?
Andrew: For many parents, the student's results and their outcomes come first. So we are very heavily focused on our A-level and Foundation results and our university progression.
Our A-level results this year are 63% A*–A, which puts us about 75% above the UK national average. Our A*–A and A*–B rates are over 80%, which means pretty much all of our students are going to Top 25 ranked universities in the UK.
Today, we introduced UK high school entry requirements and application timeline. So I would like to ask our guests, based on their educational expertise, to give Chinese young students one important tip for studying abroad?
Anna: I had been in China for a while and come here often now, so I could understand what problems Chinese students meet. I think the most important thing for them is to increase their English before studying abroad. No need to be shy and afraid of speaking English — it's OK to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you can't learn and become better. English is not their mother language, so they might feel nervous, but it’s a good opportunity.
Andrew: A very strong and good preparation is the key in all parts of life to succeed in the future. If you are well prepared, you are likely to do better than if you are not. I would advise A-level students going to the UK to do their research, and to participate as much as they can. The more they put into their two years of education during A-levels, as well as the extracurricular side, the more they will get out academically.
Thank you so much, Anna and Andrew, for being here, and introducing these ideas about studying abroad in UK high school.