How university works in the UK
June 23, 2013 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm US-ian, married to a Brit. We live in the UK with our fifteen-year-old, who will probably want to go to university. No one in my husband's family has completed university, and I want to make sure our child has the best chance to succeed in his application and time at university. I know how college and grad school work in the US. What might I not know about how things work in the UK? He's interested in science, if that makes a difference.
posted by mgrrl to Education (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, knowing he is interested in Science makes a big difference. Is he on track to take the requisite O Levels (or whatever the current version of the GCEs are)?

My experience is a little obsolete from the point of view of the exact examination taken at age 16 and age 18 but having studied in both the British and the US educational system at the high school level, going on to do engineering later, here are some observations that may be of help, at least to figure out the right questions to ask or research.

The biggest difference between the American and the British system, on the way to university, is that of 'tracking' i.e. streaming into Arts, Commerce or Pure Sciences. So, in my school, it happened at the end of Form 3 (approx age 14) where we chose the subjects we would study for the O Levels to be given at the end of Form 5. This in turn qualifies you to take appropriate A Levels, which in turn leads to University Admission.

So, if he's interested in "Science" then working backwards from what current day entry and eligibility requirements for the Sciences would be at Uni level, he should be choosing his subjects right around now, if he hasn't already done so.

Unlike the American system, you can't enter the sciences at University level in the British (and thus the many variations in the former colonies around the world like say Singapore or India) with History, Geography, Art or Literature alone at the O and A Level examinations.

In the US system, you need X number of credits from each specified area of study, across the 4 years of high school, in order to graduate. And its the GPA, the SATS (and the subject exams) or AP classes that make you eligible, but even if you don't take AP Calculus, you can still apply for and get admission to an engineering program - the caveat being you take more Calculus classes during your college years.

This aspect starts much earlier in the British system so I'd strongly recommend you speak with his school teachers and/or those who help guide the student's selection of subjects at the examination levels and their future path to Uni, and speak with them about where he is already at, what needs to be selected or decided NOW only and what are the paths to Uni level education in the Sciences.

Fwiw, I believe schools in the UK don't require students to take as many O Levels as we had to (a tiny school for expats) so its critical to decide early if Biology is a subject or Chemistry or Physics, since later on, if one has only PCM (Phys, Chem, Math) then one is eligible for the hard sciences or Engineering but not Medicine or HEalth or Botany because Biology wasn't present at either the O or A level stage. (for example only)

I hope this helps explain why this is a good time to discover more about the current day paths to Sciences at the Uni before its too late to go back and take an O or A level.

Best of luck.
posted by infini at 3:08 PM on June 23, 2013

It seems to me that the UK system places a considerably heavier emphasis than US college admissions on the student's preparation in their specific field. Just as an example, take a look at Trinity College Cambridge's list of acceptable A-levels for applicants (this was the first thing to pop up on a quick search, but I'd expect there are many other similar pages from other universities, which you might want to look at as your son considers which A-levels to study) and notice that they expect three hard science/maths A-levels of their science applicants. Choosing the right A-levels, and studying hard for them, is probably the most important thing he can do that wouldn't be obvious in the US context; they seem far more important to admissions than the US equivalent (AP courses).
posted by RogerB at 3:08 PM on June 23, 2013

Adding to RogerB's point is that he wouldn't be eligible to take hard sciences at the A levels stage if he's not done the right O levels either.
posted by infini at 3:13 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The UCAS website has a section called 'How it all works' that is probably worth perusing.

I looked into applying to universities in Britain while living in the US. The obvious differences were:
  • You apply to a specific course (you apply to study X at university Y and you then study X*, whereas your choice of X often carries little to no weight in the US, if you even had to pick something)
  • You fill in one application form and send it to UCAS. A handful of universities (Cambridge, Oxford, elsewhere?) have a supplemental application.
  • In 2003/2004, you were banned from applying to both Oxford and Cambridge. I assume this remains the case. I don't recall any other restrictions of that kind.
  • There was a limit (five?) to how many courses you could apply to. Something like no more than two at one university, but you could pick Underwater Basketweaving at University A and Cooking at University B.
  • Cambridge made you pick a college to apply to (though you could pick 'no preference'). I think it was possible your choice could work for or against you, but I don't understand how now (if I even did at the time). You can get rejected by your college of choice and picked up by another college.
  • Some universities or courses have an exam or interview of some kind.
  • You frequently get a conditional offer, saying "We'll let you in if your A-level results turn out to be XYZ." This can be something like "two As and a B" or "two As, one of which has to be in X, and a B".
  • Because of the conditional offers, there's a big messy shuffle when A-level results come out where people who didn't meet the requirements (or get better than expected results) try to find a place on another course.
O-levels became GCSEs at some point. There are schools that do IB diplomas instead of A-levels. I was in the reverse situation to you, where my mother went to university in the UK and didn't really understand how things worked in the US. I think she pumped everyone she knew with an older child for information and then kind of winged it because, of course, they said all kinds of contradictory things.

*I think there's some small degree of flexibility, but I have no idea how it works.
posted by hoyland at 3:44 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might want to clarify whether you're in Scotland or England, since the schooling systems are actually different with different exams, and you might get more specific answers. Previous answers are obviously assuming you're in England.

I don't know what the US system is like, but here is my experience (in Scotland):

- Yes you absolutely need to start making decisions early. A lot of the STEM subjects have specific requirements as to exam results, especially for prestigious universities.

- Extra curricular activities and responsibilities will play a huge part in admission, since such a high number of people get incredibly good exam results. You want to stand out. Good grades are simply not enough any more.

-If he wants to apply to a medical course (or dentistry), some universities will require he sits a stand alone test called the UKCAT, which is basically an aptitude test. Oxford and Cambridge require a BMAT which is the same sort of thing for biomed subjects. The school should guide you through this if required though.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2013

Oh, and you pick a specific course and one only. You can't do a major in something and a minor in something else. Also, if he decides he wants to switch to something else it is likely he would have to start from scratch unless it's a similar field. So you could probably move from conservation to marine biology, especially early on. You probably couldn't go from a biology degree to something in chemistry.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:53 PM on June 23, 2013

You frequently get a conditional offer, saying "We'll let you in if your A-level results turn out to be XYZ." This can be something like "two As and a B" or "two As, one of which has to be in X, and a B".

I believe its UCAS who made a change to this by now allocating a points system so they can just say "you're admitted if you've got over 270 points".

Mind you, as hoyland's comment shows, its all very complicated :p
posted by infini at 3:56 PM on June 23, 2013

The three main things that I understand about English universities are:

1) Rigidity: the opportunity to change course of study is low without starting over again. Be sure that you have chosen right before you apply or else you may waste a year for nothing. Worse, after you start your second year you cannot start again and complete and three year course without paying for one year upfront rather than on a student loan.

2) Narrowness: you study only what you applied to study and things directly related to it. If you son studies, say, biology, he won't ever sit Gender Theory 101 or English Literature classes. He may not be even offered classes such as maths if he lacks them.

3) Non-contact Time: English universities offer relatively little time in actual classes. Six hours a week total for lectures and seminars is standard for some courses. It may be somewhat greater for sciences, but do not expect the hands-on teaching that other countries give. His contact with actual teachers may be minimal and low quality.

If you want some unsolicited advice, here it is: avoid English universities, they're mostly bad news. Send him to the US to get a proper education.
posted by Jehan at 3:58 PM on June 23, 2013

Just to address a couple of points from Jehan, so as to give you a clearer picture of UK universities that you asked for (I teach in one, on a science/engineering course):

2) Narrowness: you study only what you applied to study and things directly related to it. If you son studies, say, biology, he won't ever sit Gender Theory 101 or English Literature classes. He may not be even offered classes such as maths if he lacks them.

Yes, we offer narrow courses (no major/minor), but most courses do offer teaching outside the core subject (e.g foreign language modules, business studies), and all science/engineering courses have maths teaching - we have to, for our courses to be accredited.

Six hours a week total for lectures and seminars is standard for some courses

For science and engineering, 20 hours is more normal.

All UK universities now publish this info at unistats. Plenty of other useful information for you here when it comes to choosing a university and course.
posted by firesine at 5:02 PM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised no-one's mentioned that there's still only a percentage of high-school graduates who go on to university. I'm showing my age by saying it was about 10% when I went. About ¼ made it through from first year to graduating with honours.
posted by scruss at 5:08 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bear in mind that the Scottish university system is different to the English one: four year degrees, and you do study subjects beyond the main one you will finally take to honours level and study for your last two years. This means that you get a wider education and that you can switch subjects more easily, as you have more options. Typically three subjects in your first year, three in your second year and only then do you completely specilalize - but in some cases joint honours (studying two subjects to honours level) will be possible.

Also echoing what people have said above - choice of subjects at school is crucial. Do not let the school allow your kid to drift into taking subjects which the better universities do not regard as being sufficiently rigorous. There are a whole host of subjects which the schools offer but which the better universities look down on, so it's crucial to choose the harder subjects to make sure the best university choices are not closed off.
posted by Flitcraft at 5:36 PM on June 23, 2013

That link to Trinity College Cambridge's views on A-levels is idiosyncratic because of the Cambridge tripos system, which interacts with the collegiate system in weird and unpredictable ways. In general, if Oxford or Cambridge are possible options, contact their highly-professional admissions advisors to navigate these mazes. Also for what it's worth, Oxford and Cambridge have a variety of extra tests which are sat in the autumn term of the year in which the application is made, usually the lower sixth, and which differ between degree courses. Not all courses have them.

More usefully, the Russell Group of leading UK Universities has a booklet explaining their view of subject choices at school and how they relate to university admissions.

It's not actually that hard, though: predicted A-level grades of ABB or more in relevant, traditional subjects are the way to go. One subject can be done for wider interest if the other two are highly relevant (physics, maths and history for a physics degree for example) and general studies A-level doesn't count.

(Most days!) I don't agree with Jehan on this - you can get an excellent science degree in both countries, and a dreadful one in both. There's no UK equivalent to the full scholarships at the big name US institutions, alas - but the average net cost is less in the UK and the student loan terms are arguably better.

I also don't agree that extracurriculars are super-important - what's absolutely vital is that the application form and interview (if given) shows a genuine academic enthusiasm for the subject.
posted by cromagnon at 7:10 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the UK can offer an excellent science education at the best universities, but the less good universities are variable, just as is the case in the US. I studied science at Cambridge (and don't be put off by the fact you do a general degree - it's just as specialised by the end) and in my first year I had 12 hours a week in lectures, 12-18 hours a week in labs, 4 hours a week of supervisions (1 teacher, 2-3 students) and work set for each subject every week - it's certainly not small amounts of contact time and I had one to one teaching with some of the world experts in my field. I highly recommend Oxbridge if it's something your son would value and if he can cope with the pressure, which is extreme. I've also studied at UCL, and had friends at IC, and I was impressed with all of those.

Oxbridge admissions do not look specifically at extra-curricular activities, but they want to know you're not just all about work. When people go to university they frequently go from being the one in a school that is outstanding to suddenly being mediocre or below average in a class. They want to know that you know about failure and how to cope when things get bad.

I definitely agree with the advice to get the right A-levels. If he's interested in physical sciences, further maths is a great choice.
posted by kadia_a at 11:08 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went through the British education system fairly recently (finished A-levels in 2008) and went through both Oxbridge, science, and medicine admission processes (yes, I did many degrees..). If you want any specific advice now or later feel free to MeMail me any time! In addition to the excellent advice above:

Subject choices:
  • GCSE choices don't really matter because science is compulsory at all secondary schools, and usually that's all that's required to take them at A-level (individual schools may have idiosyncratic rules though). HOWEVER make sure it's at least Double Science, and best if it's triple science.
  • After GCSEs (Year 10 and 11), you do A-levels (Year 12 and 13). When I did them the A-level exams were split into two, where you do half in Year 12 (AS-levels) and the other half (A2-levels) in Year 13. You apply to university with your AS level grades and predicted A2-level grades.
  • Choose at least 4 A-levels; for Oxbridge it's fairly common to take more than that. Do as much maths as possible.
  • Ideal combo for physical sciences would be Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry (+/- one more subject). Ideal combo for biological sciences would be Maths, Biology, Chemistry (+/- one or two more subjects). Contrary to expectation, biology is not necessary for most bio courses, including medicine - the compulsory subject is chemistry. If you want to keep your options open do all the sciences and as much as maths as possible.
  • If you want to do maths at university you may want to look into Additional Further Maths, and additional exams called STEP if you want to apply to Cambridge.
  • Some A-level subjects are considered somewhat 'soft' - generally if the subject is a bog-standard discipline name like Biology, History etc it's rigorous; not so much if it's something like Media Studies, Law, etc.
School type:
  • What kind of school is your kid at? (private, state-grammar, state-comprehensive, etc) In general, the better your school, the better their support for university admissions (e.g. knowing what kind of things to put into a reference, different aptitude tests required, giving interview coaching etc) - so you may want to consider moving him/her to a different one for sixth form. Of course it's up to the individual at the end of the day - I went to a pretty crappy comprehensive school, but it was an uphill struggle.
Admissions process in Year 13:
  • Aug~Oct: some courses have different aptitude tests - the BMAT and UKCAT for medicine/some biomedical science courses, and Oxbridge-specific ones (may vary by subject or college). These are usually taken in the autumn term of Year 13, and may require registering in the summer before then.
  • Sept~Nov: make a single application to UCAS via an online form, which includes a) form stating all your GCSE, A-level/IB grades etc b) school reference which includes your predicted A-level grades from your teachers c) personal statement d) university/course choices. UCAS then distributes this to your choices.
  • You have 5 choices, or 4 if it's medicine. In theory you can have any combination (5 different courses at the same university, for example) but you may be limited by either the institution's rules (can only apply to one course there - e.g. Oxbridge), or by your personal statement, since it'd be impossible to tailor it for multiple courses. You can only apply to one of Oxford or Cambridge.
  • Personal statement should be about 70% why you want to do the course and 30% everything else. Extra-curricular activities are nice if you have them, but not that important (definitely not as important as in the US. You can have zero and still be fine).
  • Nov~April: some courses have interviews - definitely for Oxbridge and for medicine.
  • Nov~April: get offers from universities. Most good universities do not make offers based on UCAS points. Generally you get a conditional offer like, e.g. "AAB including an A in Chemistry".
  • April~May: reply to UCAS stating your a) firm choice and b) insurance choice.
  • May~June: take A-level exams.
  • August: find out A-level results in the third week of August. If you meet the conditions of your firm choice you go to your firm automatically; if you miss your firm but meet your insurance, you go to your insurance; if you miss both, you reapply or go through clearing (see below). It is an obligation for both the university to take you and for you to go if you meet the conditions, unless you drop out of the cycle and reapply.
  • If you miss your grades your university may still take you. If they don't, you can a) take a gap year and reapply in the next cycle, in which case if you get an offer it'd be unconditional, or b) go through clearing - basically, you phone up different universities in August and you'd be taken on a case-by-case, often first-come-first-served basis as universities need to fill in their places. Some universities/courses are never in clearing. If you had no offers, then same as above - reapply or clearing.
Sciences at university:
  • Overall, there is no widespread concept of liberal arts or major/minors. It is possible to do joint degrees (e.g. Maths and Philosophy), or take some side modules in languages/humanities etc, but it is much more subject-focused from the outset.
  • It is possible to switch courses, but this depends on the university - you may have to be interviewed, or clear certain grades in first year. It is fairly easy in Cambridge though.
  • Many science courses have a common first year so that you can choose your specialised degree from second year (e.g. general biology in first year before choosing to go into Zoology, Microbiology, Ecology or whatever), though this is usually limited to either a physical or a biological science. Some courses like natural sciences may have even more flexibility.
  • Many arts subjects have only 4-5 hours of lecture time and a LOT of independent study time, reading books and writing essays. In the sciences, though, it's mostly full days - I had about 40 hours of contact time per week in first year (24 hours lectures, 4 hours of supervisions [small group teaching], ~12 hours of labs)
  • Exams generally tend to be in one set at the end of the year rather than a modular/credits system. You may have some coursework during the year.
  • There is no concept of joining a fraternity or whatever you have in the US. Some people opt to not do any extra-curricular activities at all.
  • Many science degrees are 4 years long instead of 3, and have a master's degree already incorporated into it. So you graduate with a Msc rather than a Bsc.
  • In general I feel that the UK has a much more rigorous and intense undergraduate education than the US, but this is only from anecdotal observation.
Oxbridge-specific advice (if you're interested):
  • Cambridge offers natural sciences whereas Oxford offers courses in individual subjects. In natural sciences you have theoretically full flexibility to choose any science subject to study.
  • Both require separate admissions forms, interviews in December, and possibly admissions tests. Cambridge in addition wants your specific percentage scores at AS level (rather than just A, B etc).
  • You can only apply to one, and one course only.
  • You apply to a specific college, where you live for all years of your degree, have your meals, join societies, and have small-group teaching. It's a bit like a House in Harry Potter - there are lots of inter-college activities as well but your college forms a big part of your university identity. I believe Durham and York have similar systems.
Lastly: The Student Room forum is an excellent resource - like collegeconfidential for the US, I believe.

Sorry this turned out so long and rambly, or if it was irrelevant! Let me know if you need any clarifications.
posted by pikeandshield at 1:10 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ooops, massive miscalculation - just 12 hours lectures a week, so that's 28 hours contact time. Phew.
posted by pikeandshield at 1:18 AM on June 24, 2013

I went through the British educational system (A-levels -> maths undergrad -> grad school) at the same time as pikeandshield and everything they say is correct. A couple of extra points:
  • GCSE results don't really matter for universities, but more than a handful of C/D grades, or bad results in the important subjects, doesn't look good. It's important to take enough because they dictate which A-levels you can take and those do matter. It's not uncommon to take some (e.g. maths) a year early, which reduces the exam burden later.
  • The "single"/"double" science options are an easier version of the separate Physics/Biology/Chemistry exams which merge them into one or two qualifications. Take the separate ones if at all possible.
  • There are various extra maths options that it may possible to take, depending on the school (Ad Maths, the Intermediate Maths Challenge, ...). All of the science subjects from sixth form onwards have a hefty maths component, and the more you can pick up the better.
  • The standard A-level course load is to take four AS-levels and then drop one in the second year. Most good students I know took at least four full A-levels, and some did even more.
  • Oxbridge and medicine applications are due early -- the week term started, at my sixth form. Since all UCAS applications go in at once, this means that these applicants had to sort everything out over the summer so that they could submit the moment term started.
There's lots more to say about university, but that's a few years down the line for you =). Feel free to memail me about anything.
posted by katrielalex at 2:10 AM on June 24, 2013

In addition to pikeandshield's excellent post, If you have any specific Oxford science / maths questions then kick me: my department admissions officer is excellent and will be happy to answer any questions you might have. She's also active on the Student Room, so I'd second pikeandshield's suggestion of asking questions there (although be aware of course that it can be just as full as misinformation and half-truths as any other open online discussion forum.)

Many university departments run open days for aspiring students through the year. If have the opportunity, they're a great chance to expose your daughter to how a UK university operates & ask the staff any questions you might have in person. Next Oxford open day is this Thursday, which might be slightly short notice however :)
posted by pharm at 2:11 AM on June 24, 2013

Oh, and to re-iterate pikeandshield's point about subject choices: the core science and maths A-levels (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths, Further Maths) are generally regarded as being far more rigorous then any of the others. Generally, if it has "Science" or "Studies" in the course title, you probably don't want to take it. See the list of acceptable A-levels at Trinity College, Cambridge here.

(Same goes for some other subjects too. Want to do Law at university? Don't take the Law A-level: the core arts A-levels are far more important.)
posted by pharm at 2:21 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Echoing that the Scottish system is different, both at school and university level. Plus, something you might not know coming from outside the UK higher education system is that UCAS is UK-wide, so your son can apply to English/Welsh/NI universities if he went to school in Scotland, and vice versa. This does have an impact on what tuition fees he might be paying (if any) or what loans/bursaries he's eligible for, but the issue of tuition and student loans is so complex now that it's really best talking with his school about this one - they'll have the most up-to-date information.

Some great advice above, so just to add a few more scattered observations that I've noticed seem to be different in the US system than here in the UK:

- Student loans are a whole different beast than they are in the US. Loans are administered through the Student Loans Company, and paid back only when your earnings get above a certain threshold, and even then only at a pre-determined rate based on your salary. (Again, though, the issue of finance varies greatly depending on what country your child's coming from, what country he's studying in, and what the household income is, and you need to get advice on this one that's specific to your situation.)

- UK universities don't have fraternities/sororities. Also, sport is not such a big thing at UK institutions - there are student sports societies, but there's no equivalent of, e.g., collegiate football, or sports scholarships on the same scale as in the US.

- First-years living away from home will typically have individual rooms in Halls (=dorms), rather than sharing - although they'll often be sharing a kitchen, and possibly a bathroom, with up to 20 other students.

- The higher education system as a whole is more centralised, which applies not only to UK-wide things like UCAS but also to how universities teach their own students. Individual academics have less power to determine their own rules and grading systems than they seem to in the US system. (I'm a UK academic, and I would not be permitted, by my department's or my university's rules, to set my own grading criteria or to hand out 'extra credit' assignments to individual students.)

- 'Professor', in the UK system, ranks higher than 'Doctor' - it's a specific senior academic rank. The common generic term for 'person who teaches at a university' is 'lecturer', which is the one you'll most often come across when looking at universities' websites and prospectuses. It doesn't mean anything about the seniority or qualifications of those staff.

Finally, you should absolutely attend a few open days together, browse through some university websites, and don't hesitate to encourage your child to contact the university directly if there's a particular one he seems interested in and his questions aren't being easily answered by the information they're putting out there. Don't rely on rumours - admissions officers are much more useful, and very approachable!
posted by Catseye at 2:53 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Others have mentioned that England and Scotland have two different systems. However you should bear in mind that all EU universities are potentially there as additional choices. Some UK students are considering this option as a way of reducing fees - but there may be other cultural and educational pluses (and/or pitfalls). There are various foreign universities that teach in English; others require admissions tests to check for the local language). Many UK universities offer temporary exchange programs with EU counterparts. British citizens are, of course, free to work in any part of the EU upon graduation.
posted by rongorongo at 4:07 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I finished university a year ago, and have spent most of the time since I left tutoring A-level students, here's my input (to add to all of the great advice above).

GCSE results don't matter a great deal for university, but there are a few things to look out for. The minimum result that most schools or 6th form colleges (college in the UK sense - school for 16 - 18 year olds) is 5 C grades, including English and Maths so you'll need at least that. The other useful thing that GCSEs do is act as a predictor of A level results, the average is to go down one grade (A* → A, A → B...) obviously there's a lot of variation, but it should give an early indication of what kind of university your child should be aiming for.

Then comes A-level selection, it's time to start being a bit tactical. It's unlikely a university will take someone unless they have an A level in the subject (or something similar if the degree subject isn't taught at school, e.g. you'd need a Chemistry A level to study Forensic Science). If your child is applying to one of the higher ranking universities (the Russell group, or anything with offers >BBB) then it's worthwhile to take the next most relevant subject (in the sciences Chemistry helps Biology, Physics helps Chemistry, Maths helps Physics). Most people take 4 subjects in their first year of sixth form (AS level) and continue with three in their second year (A-level). Some people take more, which looks good on the application, but all offers will be for 3 grades or an equivalent points tariff.

The paragraph above kinda assumes an unlikely perfect world scenario where your child knows exactly which subject at which university s/he wants to study early on, and that the school offers all of the right subjects at all the right times, so don't worry if it seems harder, it is for everyone.

Finally, a bit on personal statements: these seem quite different in the UK compared to the American ones I've seen, they are meant to be more academically orientated, and less personal. Your kid's school is bound to offer all sorts of advice so don't fuss about it yet, but the earlier you start thinking about what you can write about the better. Because believe me, those things are really dull and awkward most of the time. So get your child to do a few extra curricular things, read some popular science books, go to some museums or lectures, anything works.

If your child is interested in applying to Oxbridge then everything written above is still true, but it needs to be cranked up a notch. Essentially you're trying to convince them you are super keen and always have been about *subject* so the more you do the better.
posted by Ned G at 7:23 AM on June 24, 2013

NB. An aside (prompted by Ned's comment): be aware that "X Science" programs (where X might be 'Environmental', 'Forensic' etc etc) were very popular amongst various universities for getting bums on seats a few years ago, and many students signed up thinking that they were going to be able to get work in X Science afterwards. Sadly, UK demand for forensic scientists is a tiny fraction of the number of people who took Forensic Science courses & those employers generally (so I'm told) prefered people who took more traditional science degree, perhaps with a Masters in something more topic specific.

It's the A-level subject hierarchy in action at the degree level in other words: it may be unfair, but I think the assumption amongst many employers was that these courses were less rigorous than the traditional science courses offered elsewhere (or even at the same institution).
posted by pharm at 8:53 AM on June 24, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all these answers - this is superb, and just what I was hoping for! Also, thanks for the memails and offers of memails.

I'll be visiting the linked websites with my son so we can both understand what to think about next.

For future readers, we're in England, and he's (luckily) already taking math, physics, chemistry, and biology GCSEs (along with others he cares less about), so it sounds like he's set up for A levels (which I guess need to be math, further math, physics and chemistry?) to allow him to study chemistry, or some other science maybe.

Can't mark a best answer!
posted by mgrrl at 10:44 AM on June 27, 2013

If he can do Additional Mathematics (Add Math) for GCSE, he'd be quite set for a variety of science avenues, it sounds like!

Can he take Further Math at A levels with just one Math for the O?

*nosy maiden auntie ;p
posted by infini at 12:18 PM on June 27, 2013

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