Paul Kelly of Gabbitas Education Consultants weighs up the pros and cons of A-levels, the Pre-U and the International Baccalaureate

A-levels have constantly been in the news over the last decade with fierce debate over their modular nature, re-take culture and grade inflation. Unsurprisingly, two leading alternative post-16 exams quickly emerged unhindered by government interference and offering the academic rigour of the pre-2000 A-level: the Pre-U and International Baccalaureate (IB).

The great flurry of interest in these alternatives slowed with later A-level reforms, especially the introduction of a new outstanding grade, the A*, and opportunities to show real subject enthusiasm beyond exams with the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification).  In the UK the number of schools offering the alternatives are quite small. Last year just 3.5% of the independent school cohort took at least one Pre-U and only 1,908 pupils in 41 independent schools took the IB. Schools rarely offer the IB exclusively with most retaining the A-level alternative.

The latest and most radical A-level reform, which will end the modular approach from 2015 by reintroducing a linear approach with terminal exams at the end of two years of study, has reignited interest in the alternatives as a source of stability. But, how acceptable are these alternatives and will they suit your child?

A-levels, Pre-U or the International Baccalaureate: what's best?

Millfield School is one establishment that mixes A-levels and Pre-U subjects

The Pre-U is an entirely new examination developed by Cambridge International Examinations, whose first cohort was tested in the summer of 2010. The Pre-U is available as a full diploma in which a student takes an extended general paper and research project in addition to three Cambridge Pre-U Principal Subjects as a complete alternative to A-levels. However, the most common approach has been for schools to simply replace an A-level in one subject with a Pre-U Principal Subject. This ‘mix and match’ approach has been followed by schools such as Millfield and Wycombe Abbey.

The attraction of the Pre-U is its linear format with final examinations at end of the two years which is very similar to the pre 2000 A-Level. Concerns have been expressed about this terminal exam format and students have no opportunity to review their subject choices or measure their progress in AS exams at the end of Year 12. The enthusiasts argue that this approach offers nothing but advantages in many subjects as the students have the chance to consider the subject matter without limiting themselves to an exam format.  They also have the time “to grow” into their personal opinions and complete research for their own benefit.  This is particularly attractive for many humanities departments who appreciate the greater preparation and depth that is possible in such an exam. The topics are challenging and the examiners experienced. In the words of one Head of Department, “I opted for the Pre-U to try to get away from the erratic grading at A-level and to offer the opportunity for our best students to show their potential”. The highest grade in Pre-U, D1, exceeds the A* in UCAS points.

The IB, founded in 1968, is a much more established exam that offers a sense of stability in an ever changing examination environment. Universities and schools like the exam for its broadness and its emphasis on independent work. The diploma requires students to take six subjects, three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level, and a general core with an encouragement to see connections and think across subject boundaries. Discussions of the nature of proof in different subjects stimulates student thought. The subject choice is prescribed as students must take maths, their native language, a modern foreign language, a humanity and a science subject with a freer sixth choice: either a second subject from the previous categories or music, drama, art, etc.

Thus, an undecided student is not required to narrow down to three or four subjects and he or she can maintain flexibility for future degree and career options. Many universities like IB students as they are much easier to differentiate and their subject combinations can be much stronger. They combine depth and breadth which is particularly valuable for many management and humanities courses at prestigious universities. The IB is also highly rated by American universities such as Harvard University, which regards it very favourably against the A-level given its broader number of subjects studied and greater differentiation of top marks.

A-levels, Pre-U or the International Baccalaureate: what's best?

Harvard looks favourably upon the International Baccalaureate

In common with the Pre-U, all IB exams are at end of the course so the student has to be able to maintain progress in the six subjects throughout the two years. Some universities have reservations given the lack of an externally awarded exam halfway through and reliance on final predicted grades. IB offers can be consequently demanding with high achievement expected in the Higher level subjects, although latitude can be shown with a candidate who does not meet the requested overall grade at the conclusion of the two years. However, the current proposals to end modular A-levels puts these students in the same situation.

Reservations about the IB have been expressed by some university science departments, especially when a candidate is only allowed to study two sciences at the Higher Level. For the more mathematical subjects there is a concern about students being able to access enough maths of the right level. ‘There isn’t much out there that can beat the combination of maths and further maths A-levels for both breadth and depth,’ says Dr. Sam Lucy, Admissions Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge.

There are clear alternatives to A-levels, but students should carefully consider their own strengths, interests and abilities before deciding which one offers the most likely path to success.

Paul Kelly is Head of Schools and Higher Education Placement at Gabbitas Education Consultants; gabbitas.co.uk