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GCE is the abbreviation of General Certificate of Education. This was the nationally standardised system of examination introduced in 1951 in England and Wales as a development from the changes in the structure of education introduced in 1944, the Butler Act and its corollaries. It replaced the School Certificate, which was the nationally standardised examination introduced after the first world war. In Scotland, where there is a different education system, the equivalent exams are the Standard and Higher grades.The GCE examination came in two levels:

  • O level (or 'Ordinary level') was normally taken at the age of 16, at the end of the compulsory years of education. O levels no longer feature in the UK educational system, although some countries in the Commonwealth still take them. They are offered by the University of Cambridge International Examinations board. In England and Wales, they were replaced by the GCSE exams in 1986. Results in the exam, by the time it ended, were classified into five levels, of which A, B and C were called passes; D was a near fail; U was unclassified. (The joke was that it stood for 'utterly awful'.) An O level pass was regarded as a qualification for office work, and the intention was that around 20% of the age-group should be awarded a pass.
  • A level (or 'advanced level') was, and still is, typically taken at the end of the sixth form, at the age of 18. In its current form (2007), successful candidates are awarded grades from A at the top to E, with U (unclassified) being the result of an entry that has failed. Since 2001, the A level has been a two-stage examination. One set of examinations is taken after the first year of the course (in the 'lower sixth', or year 12). Successful students who stop there are awarded an AS level at grades A to E). The AS indicates that they have completed "the first year of study of a traditional A level" (DfES). At the end of the upper (second year) sixth, or year 13, they take the A2 examinations, "the harder elements of the traditional A level" (DfES). (The A2 is NOT a qualification in its own right; it is only the element that converts an AS into a full A level.) A levels are now examined in several ways as well as the traditional single 'sudden death' exam at the end of the two-year course. There are modular syllabuses with exams at frequent intervals during the two sixth form years. AS levels are credited with half the tariff points of an A2 on the UCAS points system.
    • There was also a third tier examination, the S level (or Scholarship level). This was not dissimilar to the current Advanced Extension Awards.

For a note on how to write the title of the qualifications, see A level and O level (punctuation).