The Pre-U Won’t Do


                                                              Martin Allen  *




Proponents of Tomlinson style reform of 14-19 education may have been encouraged by last year’s   announcement of new diploma lines in more traditionally academic subjects – humanities, science and languages- alongside the original 11 diplomas in more directly vocational areas[1], yet there is still no evidence of the government planning to replace A-levels or ‘diplomarise’ them into an overarching certificate in the way that Tomlinson reformers hope. On the contrary, it has put back its proposed qualifications review till 2013, hoping the diplomas become bedded in alongside A-levels.



A-level; a post-war gold standard


Emerging out of the post-war construction of secondary education, the GCE A-level replaced the matriculation certificate. It was always assumed that the new qualification would be aimed at about 5% of the cohort – not the current 30%+ – mostly sons and daughters of the post-war middle class or some of the ‘socially mobile’ working class children who had entered grammar school. Regarded as an educational ‘gold standard’ but considered both elitist and too narrow by reformers it not only survived, but as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty observed, rather ironically, also thrived in the new comprehensive schools of the post-war period. [2]

As a result, in recent years government has failed to divert significant numbers of young people who now remain in full-time education beyond 16 into ‘vocational alternatives’ like BTECs. GNVQs and Applied A-levels A-level entries have continued to grow; now toping well over 800,000 annually.  Even though a long list of new subjects has emerged, ‘traditional’  ones  like English, mathematics and  biology continue to head the entries league, with only psychology breaking into the top 5 (TES 15/08/08). Rather than embracing new courses of study, students remain canny about preferences of elite universities for particular A-level subjects rather than others (Guardian 15/08/08).


Exclusivity v Accessibility

Despite the continued influence of ‘tradition’ however, there have been considerable changes to the A-level diet. The ‘Curriculum 2000 ‘ reforms though by no means as radical as New Labour’s original proposals for the reform of post-16, have been extremely significant.  Curriculum 2000 established a modularised two part AS-A2. It also encouraged a new emphasis on ‘skills’ rather than simply concentrating on content. The new structure also meant that students could retake modules, particularly at AS level so as to enhance their final grades – which they do in large numbers.

With the annual publication of A-level results invariably showing both a rise in pass rates and a rise in the number of candidates obtaining an ‘A’ grade, A-levels continue to be steeped in controversy  facing allegations of ‘dumbing down’ and grade inflation – Oxford University reportedly turned away 5000 students with three straight A grades in 2007. (Guardian 14/08). In 2004 allegations that examination boards were tampering with grade boundaries as a result of pressure from government led to the resignation of QCA’s Chief Executive and the creation of Tomlinson’s working group on 14-19 reform.


The emergence of the Cambridge Pre-U                                    

It is in this context that we should consider the emergence of the Cambridge Pre-U. As the first gateway of diplomas get off to a shaky start across a range of comprehensive schools and further education colleges, September 2008 saw the launch of first Pre-U’s in 50 schools mostly in the Independent sector including Eton and Winchester (Guardian 11/11/08). In contrast to the modular AS-A2 system used at A-level, the Pre-U returns to the more traditional linear approach. With assessment of AS-A2 now increasingly ‘task based’,  Pre-U’s creators want to restore the importance of essay writing and the end of course final examination. To gain the full Pre-U, students take three Principal subjects, but also complete a research project and a ‘Global Perspectives’ portfolio. Cambridge claim it will be ‘exciting to teach’ and develop ‘an independent and self-directed style and ensure academic integrity.

According to its advocates, Pre-U will offer pupils more stimulation and a system of assessment that rewards creativity and lateral thinking. A-levels, they complain, only teach students to ‘think inside a very small box’ and discriminate against ‘highly imaginative students’, whose answers may even be marked down because they are considered too sophisticated. According to Tony Little, Headmaster of Eton, (Times. 20/11/2006) ‘Pre-U will offer pupils more stimulation and a system of testing that rewards creativity and lateral thinking. A-levels, he complains, only teach students to ‘think inside a very small box’ and discriminate against ‘highly imaginative students’, whose answers were often marked down because they are considered too sophisticated. ‘We want the best courses that challenge our students’. In the same article Graham Able, Head of Dulwich College, suggests the Pre-U represents   a return to the original idea of A-level as a qualification for university entry.   



Pedagogy or position? 


Many secondary and sixth-form college teachers may have some sympathy with the accusations that A-levels have been ‘dumbed down’, that there is too much assessment and that it is unnecessary to have AS and A2 divisions, but it isn’t surprising if these arguments may appear attractive at a time when school teachers, are bombarded with targets and lamenting the loss of much of their professional autonomy, over how they teach.


There are other reasons however for Pre-U’s emergence. Being primarily designed for high-performing students, many will consider the new qualification unashamedly elitist and – with A-level pass rates reaching 97% and with 1 in 4 candidates now receiving an A grade – that its main purpose is to ensure the leading and the most expensive schools can re-establish their ‘positional’   advantage.


Even if elite/private schools are responsible for a large proportion of the increases in grade A, they can no longer guarantee that their students will automatically be at the front of the queue for entry to top universities. As the Guardian (20/1/09) reported, comprehensive are closing the gap at B-D, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before they also increase their share of top grades[3]. Elite schools clearly don’t consider they can rely on the new A*grade due to become available from 2010.


Pre-U principal subjects will have 9 different grades. At the top, there will be D1 (distinction 1) D2 and D3. At least one school, Charterhouse (fees £26 000 per annum), has decided to offer the Pre-U in some individual subjects rather than as a diploma, thus creating a brand of ‘super A-levels’ .This will, as the Daily Telegraph (23/01/08) reassured its readers, mean that independent schools are ‘likely to tighten their grip on leading universities’.


Of course, as Cambridge make clear, there is nothing to stop state schools introducing the Pre-U particularly in individual subject areas where they may have expertise and particularly now that OCQ have given it official backing. 15 of  the schools teaching the new qualification from last September may be officially part of the state sector, but all but two are grammar schools and  one of the comprehensives in the initial cohort could be described as ‘unusual.’[4] CIE claims that 30 comprehensives will be part of the 2009 cohort (Guardian 11/11/08) however many comprehensive schools, struggle to provide a variety of A-level and vocational options and simply won’t have the resources to offer parallel courses in individual subjects.



A new upper track?


There have always been alternatives to A-level. For example the International Baccalaureate remains an established qualification, popular in International Schools but also attracting a small following in the state sector. Until this year at least,  government, as part of its drive to promote ‘diversity’ was committed to ensuring that the IB would be available in at least one school or college in every LEA area-earmarking £2.5 million. Now, with the emergence of the Pre-U, the further expansion of the IB is less certain. As well as being a more direct ‘national’ alternative to A-level, which according to Charterhouse has now ‘had its day’[5]; the Pre-U is also much easier to deliver than the ‘expensive’ IB (Bunnell, 2008)[6].


The Pre-U seeks to occupy the prime position in an increasingly complex landscape of post-16 certification. In an era of mass participation in HE, new types of correspondence may be evolving.  Pre-U aims to establish itself as a flagship qualification for entrance to ‘Ivy League’ Russell universities, leaving A-levels as a ‘middle’ qualification’ (maybe for ’middle’ universities?) and vocational /applied qualifications, including the new specialist diplomas for the ‘clearing’ (million +) universities.




What next?



A-levels may be very different to what they used to be, they are certainly more accessible, but there    is no definitive research evidence that they are necessarily getting easier. On the other hand one thing is certain; as performance levels rise young people have to work harder simply to stand still and the current generation of sixth formers are les or more able, they are certainly the most prepared and the  most coached in exam techniques.


 Rather than becoming embroiled in circular arguments about the merits of certain types of learning we need a comprehensive approach to the post-16 curriculum which includes them all. This will not ‘dumb down’ standards, but if organised properly and accompanied by serious measures to reverse the government’s ‘choice and diversity’ agenda, could at least start to  ‘level up’ different types of learning and make them more challenging and more exciting. In this respect, the multi-level general diploma blueprint, developed by the National Union of Teachers[7], continues to point the way.

 *  A shorter version of this appeared in The Teacher Secondary and Sixth Form Supplement Sept 2008



[1] See the DCSF’s   2008 Promoting achievement, raising success: a strategy for 14-19 qualifications   which confirmed press announcements earlier in the year. 

[2] ‘Never had  an  examination so widely criticised been so long retained…Elite criticism of the comprehensive  idea forced comprehensive schools to collude with the system because A-levels were  one way in which they could establish their own credibility.’ Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty (1996) Thirty Years On; Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive?   Fulton  ( p349,)

[3] Dumbing down disguise- Tom Clark and Polly Curtis accuse the exam boards of   withholding these figures to refute claims that the exams are getting easier.


[4] See Fran Adam’s references to Coloma Girls Convent School ‘Anyone for Stretching?’  Guardian Nov 11, 2008. The other ‘comprehensive’ is Wimbledon College a  Catholic/Jesuit boys school. 


[5] Daily Telegraph 24/01/09


[6] For a comprehensive review of the growth and contradictions behind the IB  see

Bunnell, T (2008)   The International Baccalaureate in England and Wales: the alternative paths for the future.  Curriculum Journal Vol 19. No 3 Sept 2008.


[7] National Union of Teachers (2005) Bringing down the barriers to 14-19 education.

One thought on “The Pre-U Won’t Do

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s