How Pre-U became preferred

A new exam that bridges the gap between school and university is winning fans

This week, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority accredited the first five subjects of a new alternative to A-levels, the Cambridge Pre-U. But the exam, set for a September launch, is in increasingly crowded waters. The International Baccalaureate and the government's new diploma are also favoured runnesr in the race to educate the 16- to19-year-olds of the future. The Qualifications Curriculum Authority is also set to identify the brightest pupils by adding an A* grade for those achieving over 90 per cent in A-level exams. So how will the Cambridge Pre-U distinguish itself?

Kevin Stannard, director of international curriculum development at Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), the branch of Cambridge University that developed the Pre-U with teachers, says it is not trying to replace A-levels. Nor is it offering a substantial departure from them.

"I would argue that we're maintaining a tradition – the English tradition that people who have a good, balanced portfolio of work have earned the right to specialise at university," says Stannard. "We offer a different kind of examining, and a different philosophy, and we think this package has a lot of purchase on what universities say they want from students."

The Cambridge Pre-U has a linear structure: pupils are examined only at the end of the two-year course. The principle behind this is to give teachers the freedom to prepare pupils over those two years without the pressure of constant assessment. "The idea is to give back schools and teachers control over the curriculum – it liberates the school and teachers, and gives them more power over the way that they teach," says Stannard.

The main point of the linear structure of the Pre-U is, as the name suggests, to prepare them for university. "It makes students aware of the skills they'll need in higher education and that will help them to adapt and hit the ground running," he says.

Like the IB, the Pre-U can be assembled to form a sort of diploma, by completing three subjects. But subjects can also be taken as stand-alone qualifications. Charterhouse, the renowned independent school in Surrey, will offer the Pre-U in individual subjects from September, but not as a diploma. "The Pre-U courses are meatier than A-levels," says Andrew Turner, an assistant head at the school. "We were concerned that the course content of A-levels has been nibbled away."

The plan is for Charterhouse to phase in the IB over the years, so students will have the option of doing a general qualification with the IB, or to specialise with the Pre-U.

One other way the Pre-U differs is at the top end. At the moment, a quarter of A-level students achieve an A grade. An A* will siphon off the better pupils from results day in 2010. But the Cambridge Pre-U has three tiers at the top: D1 (distinction one), D2 and D3, in descending order.

Another new aspect is that it offers a course on global perspectives, covering globalisation, climate change and geopolitics. This can be followed by an independent research report: a 5,000-word project that will enable pupils to delve into a subject in greater detail, to cross-over between subjects, or to study something not usually covered. "Essentially, it is a freedom of inquiry," says Stannard. "It's about independent thinking and it's comparative: looking at the international scene, not just your own home."

During the past months, 1,000 pupils at 30 schools – including two state schools – have been testing the Cambridge Pre-U syllabuses. Accreditation is an important step towards making this qualification available to state schools. Without it, they cannot receive funding to teach it. Pre-Us in physics, chemistry, economics, English and psychology have now been approved by the Qualifications Curriculum Authority. CIE says it has been anxious to address the needs of state schools, because they have pupils who will benefit, and have shown an interest in the new qualification.

"The thing state schools pick up on is the overall ethos of the thing – the attitude we're trying to foster," Stannard says. This ethos is partly borne out in the marking schemes. They aim to reward flair and creativity. CIE say that it intends all candidates to receive credit for the answers they give – even if the responses are unforeseen.

Pupils have been encouraged to leave anonymous feedback at the foot of their trial exam papers. The comments ranged from the positive ("rather enjoyable", said one student) to the whining ("Please can we not do them?"). Catching the ethos that the Pre-U aims to foster, another pupil wrote: "More scope to 'prove yourself' – fewer hoops to jump through. Better to be judged on the merit of your thinking and creativity than against a solid mark scheme."