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Schools Examinations

A levels, IB and Pre-U: the key differences

A levels l Two-year course

l Assessed by: exams at the end of each year

l Up to five subjects but typically three, limiting a student’s range of study

l An A level is composed of two units, AS and A2. The AS can be studied as a separate qualification in its own right

l Retakes: possible for individual units within a subject – though there will be time limits and restrictions

l Extended project: a piece of research on a topic of the student’s choice, equivalent to half an A level and a unique opportunity to develop as an independent learner and find an academic passion. Added as a response to the IB requirements

l A levels can be taken alongside Pre-Us, as individual Pre-U topics are broadly equivalent to an A level

l Available in independent and state schools

l Recognised by universities. A-level grades translate into UCAS points: an A* is worth 140, an A 120, and so on. Normally students will be given an offer from a university along the lines of, say, 300 points, to include Chemistry, for example, at grade A, depending on the course applied for

and joining them? “I wish I knew,” says John Witheridge. “I can

only think it’s nervousness. It is a risky thing, in that when we did [the Pre-U] the first time we would have been in serious trouble had everybody done extremely badly.’’ Talk to other schools, however, and it’s clear

that reports of the A level’s imminent demise are premature. It continues to be the exam of choice for the majority of schools and for more positive reasons than plain fear of change.

Girls at Godolphin & Latymer can choose either the IB or A levels

IB l Two-year course

l Assessed by: exams at the end of the programme, plus some coursework assessed in school

l Retakes: possible on individual subjects, though tend to be rare in practice

l Ethos: to develop a broad education and well-rounded critical thinkers

l Six subjects: English (in the UK), a foreign language, a humanities, a science, maths, an arts subject or an elective, which can be a second language, humanities or science.

l Plus the “core”: 150 hours of creativity, action and service so that students gain basic appreciation of the arts and sport and experience helping the local community

l Includes a critical-thinking course l The extended essay: 4,000-word research project on a chosen topic – good preparation for university

l Available in independent and state schools

l Recognised by almost all universities. A university may ask for a specific subject score within the IB, depending on the course applied for. The IB is graded in points, which translate into UCAS points – for example, a typical IB score of 30 gives a student 392 UCAS points

New exam specifications have met with

approval: for some subjects – Walthamstow School prefers the A-level syllabus to its Pre-U alternative. There’s also praise for the EPQ – the extended essays now proving increasingly popular as a way for students to demonstrate original in-depth thinking on a topic of their choice. And the new(ish) A* has also been well

received. “Broadly speaking, we like the A* award, and are working with exam boards to ensure that [it] really does represent ‘stretch and challenge’,” says Professor William Richardson, formerly head of the School of Education at Exeter University, now secretary to the HMC (The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ conference). Cautious optimism about the A level’s future – a review of the current modular structure and cutbacks on retakes are both on the horizon – could well see more schools adopt a mix-and-match approach, keeping the A level but adding either the Pre-U or IB. At Godolphin & Latymer School in West

London, for example, girls choose either the IB or A levels and do equally well with both, says Carolyn Trimming, the school’s IB co-ordinator.

18 FirstEleven Autumn 2011

Pre-U l Two-year course

l Assessed by: exams at the end of the two years

l Ethos: studying complex subjects at depth

l The full diploma includes a minimum of three principal subjects – more can be taken. No restriction on choice of subjects

l Can be broken down into separate subjects, which can be taken alongside A levels. A Pre-U principal subject is broadly equivalent to an A-level subject

l Global Perspectives and Research course must be taken to gain the full Pre-U diploma

l An Independent Research Report is part of the full diploma: a report on a topic chosen by the student, to highlight independent learning skills

l Available in independent and state schools

l Recognised by 111 universities. The Pre-U grades each carry a UCAS score; for example, a D3 is worth 130 UCAS points

It’s clear that

reports of the A level’s imminent demise are distinctly premature… it continues to be the exam of choice for many schools

“They both offer an equally good pathway to

higher education but are really quite different in their approach,” she says. And there is no right or wrong choice. What matters is that the girls have enough information to know which course will suit them best. And that’s the key, confirms Janette Wallis

from The Good Schools Guide. Take advantage of the different approaches on offer at 16 plus to find the one most suited to your child. “If there was one [type of exam] that was

the best, then all the schools would be the same and offer it. The reason they don’t is that different exams suit different people – and isn’t it great that there is some choice?”

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