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Schools Examinations


Lord Copper. Critics say the course has gone downhill. Forty years ago, the A level was in its prime: lean, mean and full of intellectual vigour. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Last year, the head of Millfield School told


TES readers that more able pupils were shunning A levels altogether while the Rev John Witheridge, headmaster of Charterhouse, sees the exam as “heavily debased” – not least because of its inability to distinguish between outstanding candidates and the merely very good. Its reliance on retakes together with its time-consuming modular structure doesn’t help either. “At A level it’s effectively two terms’ teaching,

then revision for the AS level, then in second year sixth form, you’ve got another two terms’ teaching before you revise again for the A2 level,” he says. Take this at face value, at a time when competition for university places is so acute that would-be undergraduates need to demonstrate almost superhuman levels of achievement in and out of the classroom. One could be forgiven for wondering if the A level is on its last legs with the words, “do not resuscitate”, inked in shaky cursive script, under the instruction to turn over the page. After all, there’s no shortage of highly

credible alternatives. Blessedly free of political intervention and ever-escalating pass rates, capable of catering for a wide range of abilities – stretching the most able candidates without spoon feeding the rest, say their supporters

16 FirstEleven Autumn 2011

h, the dear old A level. While other tests come and go, the A level, bastion of the post-16 exam system, remains broadly the same. Well, up to a point,

In spite of stiff competition from formidable rivals, the A level will survive, says Charlotte Phillips who celebrates the choice that the IB and Pre-U gives us

her, is reluctant to swap a broad range of interests for the narrower subject specialisation of the A level. And it’s about more than exam results, says

– they are converting more schools to their cause every year. Longest-serving is the IB, the exotic international contender which wafted in from its Swiss base over 30 years ago. It’s a demanding option. Students study six

subjects, three at higher and three at standard level, each worth a maximum of 7 points and equivalent either to a whole A level (higher) or two thirds of one (standard level). Add in a 4,000 word essay, a Theory of

Knowledge module, then top it with 150 hours of CAS (Creativity Action and Service) – everything from voluntary work to joining choirs or yomping up mountains in pursuit of the Duke of Edinburgh Award – and it’s no surprise that successful IB students develop time-management skills that would be the envy of many a top management consultant. “You have to be disciplined with

yourself. I wasn’t always but I’ve definitely learned,” says Isobel, 17, a second year IB student at a London girls’ school. She combines her studies with rowing and voluntary sessions at two local primary schools. Though hard work – “you have to put in more hours [than for A levels, because you have more subjects,” – it is also rewarding for anyone who, like

Arabella Stuart, director of admissions and communications at Sevenoaks School, an early and highly successful adopter of the IB. She sees the benefits of the IB as lifelong. “My children did the IB,” she says. “One was

Successful IB students

develop time-

management skills that would be the envy of many a top management consultant

very focused on philosophy, history and English and had to do maths and biology. [They] were hard work because she’s not naturally scientific and mathematical. [Now] she’s got a job where she had to take a maths test and in my view had she not done the IB she would not have passed. I think it’s the same for somebody who’s very scientific and mathematical. How brilliant that they also learn for another two years…how to articulate themselves on paper. These are skills which are necessary for the world of work these days, so encouraging people to be educated broadly has got to be a good thing.” And the IB isn’t the only choice. 2008 saw the launch of the Pre-U, whose first cohort of students took their exams in 2010. Developed by the University of Cambridge International Examinations, it is seen in some quarters as a re-engineered blast from the past, harking back to the more intellectually rigorous A level of the pre-1970s.

Like the IB and old-style A levels, too, the Pre-U is linear, with exams only at the


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