Schools are welcoming rivals to conventional qualifications with open arms.

“How far do you agree that democracy is necessary for a state to be legitimate?” If your head spins thinking about the answer, spare a thought for the sixth-form pupils who were faced with this and other conundrums during last summer’s exams. The question was part of the new Pre-U exam, a rigorous alternative to A-levels that is being enthusiastically adopted by growing numbers of private schools and some in the state sector who believe alternatives to conventional exams offer students a better education.

Independent schools are increasingly ditching GCSEs and A-levels in favour of what they believe are more flexible and academically demanding qualifications, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), International GCSEs (IGCSEs) and a handful of other exams. Only some of these are accredited by the exams watchdog, Ofqual, which caused some private schools to plummet in last year’s official league tables, but since then many more IGCSEs have been recognised, meaning state schools can enter them as well.

Rankings aside, private schools have mostly welcomed alternative exams, particularly in maths and English, with open arms, believing they allow more in-depth and imaginative teaching. “Parents have a valid curricular choice at an earlier age,” says Liam Butler, senior information officer and teacher recruitment co-ordinator at the Independent Schools Council. “They are advised to shop around and find a school that best matches the needs of their child.”

How far independent schools plump for alternative exams varies from school to school. Dr Anthony Seldon, head teacher of Wellington College, has thrown his hat firmly into the ring and advocates the less widespread International Baccalaureate middle years (IBMY) as a superior alternative to GCSEs. “It’s so much more of an exciting option,” says Seldon. Two years in, half of his pupils have opted to study IBMY and numbers are rising. “It’s about understanding the nature of knowledge; it gives a much better holistic education, recognising connections between subjects.”

Fundamentally, IB, IGCSEs and the Pre-U differ from conventional courses largely because they examine pupils at the end of two years of study – more like the traditional O- and A-levels used to – allowing students to gain a better overview of their subject. IBMY students are graded over a period of time. Currently, A-levels and GCSEs assess pupils after modules and via coursework, which has tarnished their appeal for many teachers who believe this structure interrupts the flow of learning and narrows their scope.

Conventional exams have earned a reputation for rote learning and lacklustre formats, becoming more about exam technique than a test of the pupil. Traditional GCSEs devote hours towards in-school controlled assessments, which can eat into teaching time across the curriculum. IGCSEs allow the teachers to “go off-piste a little more”, says Christopher Ray, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, which will offer IGCSEs in up to eight subjects this year. “A lot of teaching time has been freed up; I want teachers to go beyond their basic syllabus.” Grades at the independent boys’ school have improved since Ray introduced the new exams, which he believes are a better preparation for sixth form. “We don’t get many Cs anyway, but now we’ve had far fewer in maths and sciences. Pupils don’t fall asleep; classwork’s not boring.” These new exams won’t suit every child, warns Ray; some pupils shine brighter in the structured approach of GCSEs. A handful of private schools have returned to the old exams citing falling grades or bemoaning the lack of coursework, but overall numbers of pupils sitting the international counterparts have soared. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), an association of private schools, predicts that 80 per cent of private schools will offer at least one IGCSE in the next three years.

Much publicity surrounds the IB diploma, an alternative to A-levels, but the IBMY is less well-known, as only a handful of UK schools offer it. While the diploma better suits academic all-rounders, the IBMY is suitable for every pupil, says Seldon. It’s based on moderated teacher assessment rather than exams and is well-regarded internationally. It’s also recognised by independent sixth-form colleges. “It’s much better at encouraging minds,” says Seldon. Another benefit of the exams is they are independent of political tinkering, say supporters, while accredited IGCSEs, offered by two examining bodies in the UK, are recognised internationally, which is an added appeal for boarders from overseas.

Many misconceptions surround the A-level alternative, the esteemed IB diploma, in particular that it offers breadth rather than depth, says Ray. It does cover a broader range of subjects and pupils can’t give up maths, English or a foreign language for instance. Students study three levels at the equivalent of A-level and three at standard level (rated by UCAS as two-thirds of an A-level). At its core is a compulsory theory of knowledge paper, extended essay and community service. Growing in popularity among the private and state sectors, it’s highly rated by UCAS, with individual subjects scoring more points than A-level counterparts. “The IB has a much more open-ended examining structure,” says Ray; currently one in six boys at his school is taking the IB during the second year of offering. “It also has a more international outlook, which is obvious in English and history for instance.”

Universities welcome both the IB and Pre-U, which develop skills necessary for higher education, such as an ability for independent research, a wider overview of a subject not possible with modular style exams, and analytical flair. Pupils are graded to allow universities to identify the most capable. Currently more than 20 per cent of A-level students gain the top grade.

Unlike the IB, the Pre-U doesn’t specify a core of compulsory subjects and instead allows pupils to specialise, as they do with A-levels. Developed by Cambridge University in collaboration with schools and universities, and now in its second year, more than 100 schools are planning to enter candidates this year and in 2012. “Many schools and universities felt a lot was being chipped away from [modular] A-level study,” says Geraldine Seymour, international communications manager at the University of Cambridge International Examinations. The Pre-U aims to equip students for undergraduate study – they have to be able to cope with independent working and exams at the end of the course. It’s awarded in diploma form to students who successfully complete three main subjects, an independent research project and a global perspectives portfolio.

Some schools have completely switched over to the Pre-U, while others run it alongside A-levels. The most popular subjects are English literature, maths, history, French and physics. Rugby School believes the qualification has the potential to completely replace A-levels: “We experienced very few problems with universities making offers at the wrong levels and, almost without exception, they were well-informed about the course.”

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