J H Kazi, deputy headmaster (academic) of Charterhouse school, which along with Winchester, was the first school to introduce the Pre-U in 2008, explains how the academic scene has moved forward over the past 17 years.
For those people who have been involved with UK education long enough to recognise a pre-millennial education system, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have just stepped back in time and returned to old fashioned A-levels – the sort that were sudden death. Linear courses that were terminally assessed and designed to sort the wheat from the chaff, translated as, ‘have a small number of pupils achieving the top grades’.
Indeed, there does appear to be something reassuringly ‘traditional’ about both the structure and the content of the new A-levels that have been taught in some subjects since September 2015. Similarly, there is a parallel shift occurring with the new GCSEs, albeit with revised grading that runs 9–1 instead of A*–U (perhaps another throwback to the pre-1975 O-level numerical grading, albeit inverted).
Especially within the UK’s independent sector, the reality is that the educational offering has significantly expanded since 2000, which is when ‘advanced levels’ emerged as having two contiguous components, with assessment at the end of each year in the form of AS and A2 examinations.
Well quite a lot. A-levels and GCSEs are no longer the only qualifications that are common currency and over the last 17 years, we have seen schools embracing a broad range of new qualifications, as well as some schools who invent their own.
The sixth form is where there is the most evidence of change. Independent schools have never really embraced vocational qualifications, although quite a number do offer a GNVQ in public service through their combined cadet forces. The real growth in alternative qualifications has come from schools running dual curricula options with the International Baccalaureate diploma programme or supplementing their A-level offerings with Cambridge International Examinations’ International A-level and Pre-U courses, in addition to augmenting their GCSE courses with international GCSEs.
We all know that education is not just about examination-hall performance and that we seek to educate in the widest sense possible. It is little wonder that opportunities to credit pupils for their wider development and service to others should be sought through the GNVQ or the CAS element of the IB Diploma Programme, or even through schools’ own ‘diplomas’. Indeed, the philosophically-led IB diploma programme was particularly attractive to many schools because it was, for quite a while, the only sixth-form qualification that was not assessed in a modular fashion and allowed schools to avoid the inevitable disruption that came about as a result of AS levels disrupting the summer term of the lower sixth.
It wasn’t just an issue with the structure of the courses, but also the content. Many schools saw less and less material available to be taught on the A-level syllabus and an increasing obsession with meeting the examiner’s assessment objectives, which resulted in time spent on teaching examination technique rather than teaching the actual subject.
As a result, we have seen the rise of additional university entrance tests, whilst simultaneously hearing the concerns of university lecturers, many of whom have had to restructure their courses in order to fill knowledge gaps that have emerged as a result of the limited syllabus content at secondary level.
By contrast, the alternative sixth-form courses (IBDP, Pre-U and International A-level) have rather more substance to them and are, correspondingly, much more stimulating to teach.
Benefits of the Pre-U
It is little wonder that at GCSE, where there is not as much choice, many schools have created their own subject courses that they self-validate or schools have veered to the more traditional IGCSEs. The advantages of IGCSEs in terms of their content vary from subject to subject: none have controlled assessment, which allows teachers to get on with teaching rather than child-minding as pupils slavishly write up their coursework under examination hall conditions. Additionally, all have a diminished coursework component and a rather more robust range of coverage, making effective preparation for the sixth form.
One of the advantages of these alternative qualifications is the quality of the marking. The increased pressure under which the national examination boards found themselves with a growing school population (bearing in mind the rise in the compulsory age of school leavers) was not easy to handle. The international boards, drawing on a global field of markers, as well as having typically smaller cohorts, has meant that the quality of marking is much more accurate.
Whilst the shape of the new national qualifications at A-level and GCSE might have reverted to a more traditional form, the independent sector, in particular, has promoted a healthy range of alternatives. This will mean that the national boards will have to work very hard to compete effectively in an educational environment that has a broader and much more international perspective than was the case pre-2000.
So is it the case there is a ‘little bit of history repeating’? The only thing that is repeating seems to be the qualification, but the educational context has very much moved on.