As soon as Charterhouse found a credible way out of the A-level stranglehold we took it. Two years later, we are celebrating the achievements of the first cohort to sit the Cambridge International Board’s Pre-U (Pre-University) examination. Here are syllabuses that engage and stretch sixth-formers. They require deep delving, rigorous research and wider reading. Pupils are encouraged to take intellectual risks by developing their own ideas and arguments, and are rewarded for academic flair. All this will ring bells with those of us who sat A-levels 30 or 40 years ago, but not with those who sat today’s A-levels, with their ‘accessible’, prescriptive and frankly boring curricula, and examinations in which everyone has to do well.
The Pre-U is examined once at the end of the two-year course. That allows five terms for teaching the three or four subjects in depth, and examines pupils only when they have completed the course, and are at their most intellectually mature. This is also a far cry from today’s A-level, with its bite-sized, re-sittable modules and spoon-fed coursework, punctuating and confusing the learning process with obsessive assessment.
The Pre-U is generally concerned with learning and is a long-overdue change from the damaging idea that education can be reduced to the pursuit of test results. Teachers have found the Pre-U subjects liberating and fulfilling. ‘The Pre-U,’ says Charterhouse’s Head of French, ‘prepares pupils for the most rigorous university study. Not only is the course unafraid to stress the importance of grammar but it brings back the challenging and exciting in-depth study of the great classics of French literature. It’s a breath of fresh air.’
The Pre-U discriminates, allowing those with genuine academic ability access to two grades above an A at A-level. This is not only fair but an enormous help to top universities, which have to discern somehow between a wide range of candidates all with A grades (and the new A* has done little to impede unstoppable grade inflation). Still more important, Pre-U candidates are ready and well-prepared for the intellectual demands of serious university study.
Labour’s big idea to send 50 per cent of school-leavers to university made no academic sense, and now it is clear that it does not make economic sense either. Fewer university places necessitate a sixth-form examination that makes clear who deserves a place and who does not. This is exactly what the Pre-U does.
Michael Gove has signalled that he intends to reform A-levels along Pre-U lines. This is excellent news but, if it happens at all, it will take three to five years — and in the meantime thousands more sixth-formers will be disadvantaged. But the Pre-U is already up and running and every school, independent and maintained, which values the unrepeatable opportunities of a good sixth-form education should be encouraged to offer it.
John Witheridge is the Headmaster of Charterhouse.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 28, 2010