Oliver Lewis

Multiple choice | 19 March 2011

With GCSEs and A-levels increasingly dumbed down and devalued, experience with broader, more rigorous qualifications is a key advantage for many independent schools. Oliver Lewis explores the options

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When it comes to qualifications, English schoolchildren have more choice than ever. Everyone knows about GCSEs and A-levels, yet few pay much attention to the alternatives, such as the International Baccalaureate and the International A-level.

Why are these alternatives overlooked? Because they are the preserve of independent schools. The independent

sector has the great advantage of not being compelled to follow the national curriculum guidelines, which prevent state schools from offering alternative exams. The new government, under Michael Gove’s liberating education agenda, is attempting to give state pupils access to different qualifications, but it is going to take a while. Independent schools, by contrast, have had plenty of time to establish alternative examination systems and mould their education methods to fit.

Surprisingly, the IGCSE, which has earned great praise for its open-ended questions, in-depth syllabuses

and rejection of coursework, is the most contentious exam on offer in independent schools. The last

government banned state schools from offering the IGCSE in compulsory subjects, a decision only overturned

last year. Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference, is on record as praising the way it

lets schools ‘meet the best interests of their students’,and other education experts say it is an excellent foundation

for A-levels.

In the private sector, the IGCSE is rapidly establishing itself as a meatier alternative to the GCSE (recently savaged by the High Master of St Paul’s School as ‘baby food’). An increasing number of schools are offering the exam. In 2009, Manchester Grammar School became the fourth independent school to switch entirely to IGCSEs; last year, 855 schools offered it, and a recent survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conferences found that two thirds of independent schools now offer it in at least one subject.

This is not to say the IGCSE is without critics. In 2006 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority condemned

its lack of prescribed reading in English, the lack of an oral test in French and the absence of noncalculator

exams in maths. Nine independent schools dropped it in 2009.

The International A-level can also only be found in the independent sector and its board has not even

attempted to earn accreditation from the government.

Despite this it has already been recognised by universities as equivalent in value to normal A-levels and on a

par with the French Baccalaureate, the German Abitur and other European exams.

The International Baccalaureate originated in Switzerland and has been used in private schools for a long time. Since 2003, though, it has had a strengthening toehold in the state system. It is widely regarded as more arduous than the A-level; in 2006 the Bac failure rate was about 20 per cent, against 4 per cent for A-levels. It is increasingly popular

with state schools: over the past three years, 84 per cent of the schools taking steps towards adopting it have been inschools that offer the Bac are fee-paying. (The top five are listed in the table opposite.)

Pre-Us are the latest of the major new exams to arrive on the British educational scene. Created by Cambridge

University in 2008, they have been taken up with great enthusiasm; Westminster School, Charterhouse, Dulwich

College, Winchester College, Rugby School and Eton all use them. Famously, they were criticised for being too

hard when Gary Lineker’s son failed to meet the grades required for him to get a place at Manchester University;

his school, Charterhouse, had just made the switch from A-levels.

The former director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Mick Waters, argues that, with competing

exam systems, most head teachers pick the easiest qualifications. But allowing the state to determine which

examinations can be used in every school across the board has led to stagnation, grade inflation and ‘dumbing

down’. University admissions departments are well equipped to weigh up the various examination systems,

and have a good idea of how tough they are.

In any case, the new government has firmly rejected the idea that competition in education is detrimental.

The new academies and ‘Free Schools’ run on the principle that when parents have the right to choose schools

for their children, heads will be encouraged to choose the exam system that requires the most rigorous, broad

and thorough education. And many independent schools would argue that they already show this to be the case.