May 2012 issue

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Prospecting for gold

Additional exams have entered the UK’s university entrance exams arena alongside traditional A-levels, as Gillian Evans finds out.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) and, more recently, the Cambridge Pre-U have joined A-levels in the UK exam landscape for post-16 year olds entering university.

A-levels, the “gold standard”, continue to dominate, but some think students are awarded higher grades than they would have achieved a few years ago, making it harder for universities to differentiate between candidates. “I have less confidence in A-levels due to problems university admissions tutors have deciding between candidates with three A-grades,” states James Fraser, IB Coordinator at Scarborough College in Scarborough.

Research by website Socialglue Schools Guide revealed average A-level scores have increased by 24 per cent since the mid-1990s. By comparison, IB results rose by less than 4.5 per cent. To address this, an A* grade was introduced in September 2008 for higher education entry in 2010, and is awarded to those who achieve an A in their overall A-level, with a score of at least 90 per cent at A2 (the second year of A-level studies). Chris Pyle, Deputy Head (Curriculum) at The Perse School in Cambridge believes this has been a positive development. He says, “The A* grade has reinvigorated the A2 year and added new stretch and challenge to the A-levels, which still deserve their gold standard status.”

So what are the alternatives? IB is A-levels’ main rival. While A-level students take three or four subjects, IB students take six: half at higher level and half at standard, which must include maths, a science, and, if possible, native and foreign language study. “IB’s advantages lie in the breadth of post-16 study,” asserts Fraser. He continues, “Student feedback shows the IB is very good university study preparation.” Despite its advantages, Fraser believes some education advisors do not have a thorough enough understanding of IB’s benefits in relation to overseas students. But, he says, “Students can study literature in their own language, or in English.”

Some schools, such as Sidcot School in Somerset, offer A-level and IB preparation courses. Lasting one academic year, the pre A-level course focuses on English language development, but in both the pre A-level and pre-IB courses students take some GCSE and international GCSE (iGCSE) exams. “This means the average pre-IB student will complete the year with five GCSEs and an iGCSE,” says Sidcot School’s James Milne. “The average A-level student will complete the year with three or four GCSEs, a Cambridge Pet certificate and an Ielts general score.”

The Cambridge Pre-U is a relative newcomer to the exams market, and like A-levels, students can study up to three subjects. “The main advantage of Pre-U is the focus on deep and extended learning; for example, students conduct original research projects as part of their Pre-U psychology courses,” explains Pyle at The Perse School, which offers Pre-U in a selection of subjects as well as A-levels.

Some, however, argue that the Pre-U is only suitable for more advanced students. “Cambridge Pre-U is very academic, which is fine for the very bright and helps Oxbridge candidates pursue interests in the extended projects provision, but does not suit more average students or those for whom English is a second language,” relates Linde Melhuish at Padworth College in Reading. But Pyle says the Pre-U is keen to counter this perception, “Our experience is that it has served our students well – in a selective school in the top 25 of the national league tables.”

So which exam is best? “...there is huge flexibility in A-levels, not found in the IB or Pre-U,” claims Stephen Pumphrey at St Catherine’s School in Guildford. While Melhuish asserts that the early specialisation of A-levels is particularly suited to overseas students and allows extra time for English language teaching to support academic study. She adds, “Some schools see early specialisation at A-level as too narrow but we see it as a strength – the six subjects required for IB leaves little time for [English language support]. IB needs an all-round balance of academic ability and we find that very often, students are better at either sciences or humanities and so they prefer to pursue the subjects they enjoy and in which they have found success.”

Alistair Brownlow at Rochester Independent College, Rochester, agrees and emphasises, “Our top international students can take A-levels in one year from scratch, something that would not be possible with the IB Diploma.”

Most forecast that the A-level will remain top dog for university entrance. “IB has been quite trendy, and [demand] might flatten out as media interest wanes,” says Vanessa Charters at The Mount School in York. “The Pre-U will become more popular, [but] neither will supplant A-levels.”

Standing out from the crowd

While A-levels are still the first choice for most, many schools offer A-levels in conjunction with other qualifications to make them stand out from the crowd of grade-A students.

Students at The Perse School in Cambridge can take a Pre-U in music, psychology or physics or an AQA Baccalaurete alongside A-levels. The AQA Baccalaureate “recognises and celebrates the achievements of well-rounded students”, according to its website. AQA students are encouraged to develop independent learning skills through the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) of A-level subjects, personal development through activities such as work-related learning, and breadth through an AS level such as General Studies, Critical Thinking or Citizenship Studies. “EPQ is worth an AS level,” says Chris Pyle, Deputy Head (Curriculum) at the school. “[But] its value is much greater in terms of opportunity.

”The Mount School in York also offers its students the opportunity to take the AQA Baccalaureate. “The EPQ develops student autonomy, learning and research skills,” relates Vanessa Charters at the school. “It also improves employability and university [performance].”

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