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CIE A Level Computer Science

A guide for parents about A Level Computer Science

I have been asked many questions about A Level Computer Science and also about the difference between IT and Computer Science. This guide is designed to provide answers either because you are a home educator, or a parent whose child has done well their GCSEs and is particularly interested in computers and is considering studying e.g. maths, computing, physics or engineering at degree level.

What is CIE ?

CIE stands for Cambridge International Exams. The CIE A Level Computer Science exam
  • Has a good reputation
  • Can be taken by home educated children because there is no coursework involved
  • The assessment depends on just the exams.

The Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) exam board was one of the first boards to offer A Levels in Computer Science. These days practially all the major examination boards also offer A Level Computer Science. Most university computer science courses will require maths – and for a handful of courses, further maths is also preferred. There are, however, quite a few universities that will accept applicants for Computer Science with just GCSE-level maths. Useful A Levels to consider when thinking of applying for a computer science degree course include

  • Computing
  • Further maths
  • Physics
  • Philosophy
However, do check the admissions requirements for the universities you are interested in applying for.

Due to a Department of Education decision A Levels in ICT will no longer be redeveloped. The shift is towards A Level Computer Science. An alternative to A Level Computer Science are the ICT Tech Level 3 courses.

The CIE A Level Computer Science Syllabus

The detailed syllabus is available on the CIE website. It builds on the IGCSE Computer Science syllabus, but it is perfectly possible to take the A Level Computer Science exam without having taken the IGCSE Computer Science exam. It includes, broadly speaking, the subject areas in the IGCSE computer science exam as well as more advanced topics such as computer networking, details of how operating systems work, more advanced knowledge of programming algorithms, data structures and databases.

  • Digital representation of signals and data
  • Computer networks and Internet Technologies
  • Hardware including Digital Logic gates and circuits
  • Computer architecture and computer Operating Systems
  • Processor architectures, instruction sets and assembly language
  • System software - including operating systems together with associated utility and library programs
  • Algorithms, Programming and Data Representation
  • Software development processes
  • Ethics and ownership
  • Databases and data modelling
  • Programming and the concepts involved in designing and coding software
  • Data structures and records
  • Databases
Those taking an A/S Level (Sections 1 and 2) in computer science cover these topics in less detail and at a less advanced level. Those taking the A level take sections 1 and 2, and, in addition take sections 2 and 3 which develop the various subject areas in greater detail and at a more advanced level. The CIE A Level exam has no practical, and consists of four written exams all of the short answer and structured question type.
  • Paper 1 Theory Fundamentals - 1hr 30 mins
  • Paper 2 Fundamental Problem-solving and Programming Skills - 2 hrs
  • Paper 3 Advanced Theory - 1hr 30 mins
  • Paper 4 Further Problem-solving and Programming Skills - 2 hrs
Passing Papers 1 and 2 earns an A/S level - with each paper counting for 50% towards the final grade. Passing Papers 1, 2, 3, and 4 earns an A level - with each paper counting for 25% towards the final grade.

The exam can be taken in the July or November. There is no minimum age for taking it and anyone can take it as many times as they wish. Even though there is no practical paper actual practice with computer programming accounts for a large part of the preparation for this exam – especially the second exam. In the problem-solving exams, students are expected to be able to write “pseudo code” based on their practical programming experience. Our distance learning course requires students to use and learn a programming language. Students also need to complete exam “Pre-release” tasks for both Paper2 and Paper 4 that they will be asked questions on in the corresponding exams. The Pre-release programming task is sent out to students about 3 months before the exam date. Without a good practical knowledge of programming, passing the problem solving exams is unlikely.

Choice of programming language to study

The programming languages recommended by CIE are Python, Visual Basic, and Pascal. The choice of language is fairly open as learning to program in any one of these languages will provide the experience and knowledge necessary to write "pseudo code" in response to questions asked in the exam. The exam is really testing a student's general programming knowledge and ability to analyse and solve problems.

Taking the Exam

Most home educated children, and those studying for the A Level by distance learning will take their exams at a variety of places such as e.g. private schools, colleges and dedicated exam centres. The cost of taking the exam will vary from centre to centre, but, typically should be in the range of £150-£300.

Official Course Books

The course book revision guide and teacher's resource guide available and accredited by CIE are


Q. My child has not done much programming or computer work, will they find the course too hard?
A. There is much material to cover. A sensible plan of study would be to take the first two exams one year, and the the second two exams the following year.
Q. What is the hardest part of the syllabus?
A. Logic Gates and Circuits are sometimes found to be a difficult topic. However, at this level the real challenge comes from the problem solving, data structures and algorithms sections.
Q. Any general advice or suggestions.
A. This is a well thought out and researched syllabus, especially for a young person that is interested in computing or programming. It provides a good grounding in the computer science. Studying the course can be enriched by experimenting with the BBC Microbit, the Arduino and the RasbperryPi for which many good resources are available, including materials developed at our parent company First Technology Transfer .
Q. Is it possible to complete the entire syllabus in one year?
A. Yes, with hard work and focused tutoring this can be done, especially if the other A Levels being taken are "Computer Science Sympathetic" e.g. Maths and Further Maths.

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