Independent schools deserting A-levels and GCSEs

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The top independent schools are accelerating a drift away from A-levels and GCSEs, according to a major study out today.

Growing numbers of private schools are offering the International GCSE, which is based on traditional O-level lines with the accent on end-of-year exams. In addition, the International Baccalaureate (IB), which offers sixth-formers a wider range of studies, is gaining more of a stranglehold in private schools.

A survey by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference – which represents 250 of the country's elite former boys'-only schools such as Eton and Harrow – shows two-thirds are now offering the IGCSE in at least some subjects. The GCSEs most likely to be ditched are maths, English and science (69 offer maths IGCSE, 40 science and 20 English), with headteachers saying they regard the alternative exam as more academically testing than GCSE and therefore better preparation for A-levels.

Asked about their future plans, it emerged that about 80 per cent would be offering the IGCSE within the next three years.

More than one in five HMC schools has pledged to offer the IB, which includes seven compulsory subjects of study plus a thesis-style essay to be completed by all candidates. The numbers are expected to grow over the next three years.

Schools offering A-levels only are also taking advantage of the new extended essay project now offered by the Government to be taken alongside them. Two in five are now offering it, with the numbers expected to grow to three in five by 2012-13.

Some have ditched AS levels, which are worth half an A level and taken by most pupils at the end of the first year of the sixth-form.

Andrew Grant, chairman of HMC and headmaster of St Albans School, Hertfordshire, said the figures showed that private schools were selecting the qualifications they offered "to meet the best interests of their students rather than having to swallow the artificially restricted diet imposed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families".

He predicted that there would be a two-tier examinations system separating private and state schools for several years. Only one school, though, is offering the Government's new diploma.

Rival exams: How they compare

INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE Includes seven compulsory subjects of study like modern languages and a science subject, plus an extended essay project. Can be worth more points for university entrance than A-levels, hence schools offering it regularly top exam performance tables. Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford tops the non-selective state schools league table and Sevenoaks has been the top independent school; both have ditched A-level.

IGCSE The International GCSE is so-called because there was a demand from several former Commonwealth countries – including India and in the Caribbean – to offer an O-level style exam when that qualification merged with the Certificate of Secondary Education to form the GCSE in the 1980s. It is an old-style qualification based on an end-of-year exam rather than coursework, and is now finding favour in growing numbers of independent schools.