Fifteen schools yesterday became the first state schools to ditch A-levels for a more traditional rival.
A total of 50 schools – including 15 state-maintained schools and colleges – will offer pupils the new Cambridge Pre-U, designed along the lines of the pre-coursework A-levels with tougher essay-style questions, when it becomes available for the first time in September.
The new exam poses a threat to the Government's A-level reforms, which will see the introduction of an A* grade for the first time for students starting their course in September. Supporters of Pre-U claim the reforms are "too little, too late".
One school, King Edward VI grammar in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, a 500-pupil boys' school, will abandon A-level English on the ground that it no longer prepares pupils for university study, according to its headteacher, Tim Moore-Bridger. The school may also switch pupils to Pre-U in German and French.
"I have for a long time been dissatisfied with the present structure of A-levels," he said. "I am sure what we're giving pupils at the moment [with A-levels] is not good preparation for university success – in particular the fact that they can go up without having written an essay to speak of."
He said that the new modern languages syllabus for A-levels – also to be introduced in September – had cut out the study of literature to concentrate on speaking and listening skills.
"New A-levels have pretty well removed literature totally from modern languages," he added.
Mr Moore-Bridger said other subjects could follow suit, with maths next in line: "Who knows? If it is successful, we could be all Pre-U in five to 10 years." He said he disliked the A-levels' "retake mentality" whereby pupils could sit a module again if they failed to make their required grade the first time.
Coloma Convent Girls' School in Croydon, south London – a 1,050-pupil Catholic school, is to become the first comprehensive to switch from A-level to Pre U, offering a Pre-U in business management. Andrew Corish, its headteacher, believes the new exam will offer pupils a better opportunity to develop a business plan than the A-level. He said A-levels did not allow pupils to develop thinking skills.
The Pre-U, devised by University of Cambridge International Examinations, includes three-hour essay-style questions. A-level questions tend to give pupils 15 minutes to develop an answer.
The Pre-U will have nine different grades – including three distinctions (D1, D2 and D3) which would roughly be the equivalent of an A-grade pass in A-level – now awarded to one in four scripts. Even with the introduction of the A* grade, it would still offer university admissions tutors a better way to distinguish between high-flying candidates.
It has already won accreditation from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, which means schools can receive government funding to offer it, and the University and College Admissions Service is expected to rank it alongside A-levels.
This autumn the Government is launching specialist diplomas in five subjects, and some schools are offering the International Baccalaureate.
The Government announced yesterday that it is drawing up proposals to rank schools on their pupils' well-being. In evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, it agreed that too much emphasis was being placed on test or exam results in ranking schools. The ranking for pupil well-being will take account of how much sport is played and whether children are healthy or overweight.