After high school, further education becomes a serious question with confusing options. Schools rarely guide or educate you on your choices once SLC is over. First there was ISc, IA, ICom and IEd from Tribhuvan University. Then there was +2 from Higher Secondary Education Board (HSEB), which a large number of students joined because of its revised and improved syllabus. Many even studied under India's Central Board of Secondary Education and some joined A Level.

Budhanilkantha School was the first to introduce O/A level studies in Nepal in 1985 after Cambridge University, UK approved it as an independent centre. In 1987, having run Ordinary Level (O level) for two years, it introduced A Level. "Only a few SLC graduates were selected for O Level, then they went on to study A Level," says NP Sharma, the school's principal. Budhanilkantha School did not just pioneer in providing internationally recognised courses but also set a landmark for producing the highest number of toppers. Only last year, it produced five A Level Nepal toppers.

But what is A Level? It is an Advanced Level GCE (General Certificate of Education) qualification, which is equivalent to a two-year intermediate level study in Nepal. GCE is run under Cambridge International Examination (CIE) Board. It is a part of University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), now known as Cambridge Assessment. Upon completion of the two-year A Level course, you can join a Bachelors programme directly. As Laba Prasad Tripathi, spokesperson of Ministry of Education (MoE), says "The course is recognised in all Nepali universities and there is no problem with its equivalency." As per the Directory of Recognition and Equivalence of Educational Qualifications, grades A, B, C are recognised by TU as distinction, first division and second division respectively. Grades D and E are recognised as third division. A certificate that shows your results in grades instead of numbers is globally accepted. At present, A Level is taught in 160 countries with a variety of 70 subjects.

"In A level, you have to appear in four subjects, of which only General Paper (English) is mandatory," says Anup Adhikari, exams manager at the British Council. "Students can choose to study as per their preferences, like Physics, Sociology, Business Studies, Thinking Skills together," he adds. In +2 or other intermediate studies, subjects to be studied are prescribed and students don't have much choice. The MoE and the British Council are the authorised bodies providing licenses to schools and colleges who want to offer A levels. "The exam questions are sent from UK," says Adhikari, "The British Council just administers them." A student can sit for the exams either in May/June or October/November, which Adhikari believes helps students to prepare well in advance. He also assures that the exams are conducted fairly.

Cambridge University and the MoE have set some standards for the schools and colleges providing GCE courses. The institutes must be well equipped with libraries, science and computer labs, playground etc. The guidelines insist that the tutors hold a Masters' degree and there must be a Teacher's Support Site with broadband connection. If officials from MoE and BC find institutes operating without fulfilling these criteria, their licenses could be seized and the institutes shut down. "We recently closed down four colleges as they did not meet the criteria," says Adhikari.

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Principal of Chelsea International Academy, Sudhir Kumar Jha claims that his college has all that's required to run A level courses. "We have the best teachers available in the Valley, most of them are A-level graduates," he says. The college was established just last year but it produced O level topper Raghu Aditya who scored 3As and 2Bs. Raghu says, "I didn't like the SLC pattern which has a fixed syllabus and students can easily pass if they study by rote." An A level student, Raghu keenly analyses and tries to understand all his subjects. Though O level is banned by the Nepali government, the course is recognised elsewhere in the world.

Studying A level is expensive as the exam fees alone cost up to Rs 5,800 per subject, plus heavy admission and monthly fees. But Raj Laxmi Golchha, chairperson of Kritika Education Foundation in Biratnagar which introduced A-level course this year, says, "I don't understand why colleges in Kathmandu charge heavy fees." The Foundation charges a monthly fee of Rs 3,500 for science subjects and Rs 3,000 for management courses, while some colleges in Kathmandu charge nearly Rs 8,000-10,000 per month. She adds, "Everyone can't afford to go to Kathmandu for higher studies where living expenses are even higher."

Cosmos International Academy in Pokhara is another college outside the Valley that's catering to a large number of Pokharelis who aspire to go abroad after the completion of their course. Tej Bahadur Gurung, executive director of Cosmos says, "Some colleges and universities abroad don't ask for TOEFL and IELTS result if you show your A Level grades."

Prabin Chandra Subedi, an A-level graduate from Orient College whose application has been accepted by Lee University in America shares similar thoughts: "The grades I obtained helped me get through to a good university." This fact is made more apparent by Nelish Pradhan, last year's world topper in Sociology from Rato Bangla. University of Richmond, where he applied, sent him plane tickets so he could fly out for an interview and back. Says Anup Adhikari: "Some colleges and universities even waive fees for A-level graduates."

To maintain the standard in A-level teaching schools and colleges, Cambridge Educator's Association Nepal (CEAN) was recently formed. The association's president Bishwo Nath Prajapati says that interaction among teachers of various institutes providing A level were lacking before. "Now, we want to focus on quality education by training teachers through local trainers," he adds. Currently, the British Council invites teachers from Cambridge University to train various teachers of A-level teaching schools and colleges. With the teachers keeping updated, the students are sure to benefit.