Examiners unveil alternative to 'easy' A-levels

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The Independent Online

An alternative to A-levels aimed at stretching the brightest pupils will be unveiled at a conference on the future of school exams next week.

Detailed discussions over the new exam - called the Cambridge Pre-U - have already been held with leading independent schools and state specialist schools. The exam is being devised by University of Cambridge International Examinations (UCIE), which is linked to one of Britain's biggest exam boards, the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts (OCR).

Leading independent school heads believe the exam will be tougher than A-levels, thus making it easier for universities to sift out the brightest candidates.

Patrick Derham, the headmaster of Rugby School - which has boarding fees of £21,750 a year - said: "We are very interested in Cambridge Pre-U because, primarily, there is a real need for an academically credible exam.

"What we like about it is that it avoids prescription and concentrates on subject specialisms. We need an exam that can stretch the top end."

The new exam will be unveiled at a conference on alternatives to the GCSE and A-levels at Wellington College, Berkshire, next Tuesday. At the conference, Dr Anthony Seldon, the master of the college, will call for a Royal Commission to look at the future of examinations.

The new exam has the potential to drive a wedge between the state sector and private schools as, despite the interest of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in the venture, it would be difficult for state schools to enter pupils for the exam.

As they are publicly funded, they can only put pupils in for exams that are properly accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, which has not yet received a request for support from UCIE. But it would dramatically reduce the credibility of A-levels if leading independent schools opted to offer it instead of them.

Ann Puntis, the chief executive of UCIE, who will be speak at the conference, said yesterday: "We have been overwhelmed with the response from schools who are genuinely enthusiastic about the development of the new qualification. Schools are contacting us to ... join our development panels, who are working on the syllabuses. We are also experiencing widespread interest from schools in the maintained sector."

In all, a syllabus for the new exam is being developed in 19 subject areas, including Chinese and classical heritage, as well as all the main subjects.