The Cambridge Pre-U: Increasing the divide?

Another alternative to A-levels, the Cambridge Pre-U, is emerging as a further distinction of difference

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The Independent Online

'It's not A-Level and it's not university, it's a bridge between', says former Cambridge Pre-U student Clare Abiodun.

Clare, 20, is one of a growing number of students who came to university with both A-Levels and the Pre-U on their Ucas forms. The Pre-U is an alternative to A-Levels, created by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) specifically to prepare students for university.

This September, 150 schools across the country will have registered to offer the Pre-U to students, cementing a seven per cent rise in Pre-U uptake in 'principal' subjects.

Despite this, universities have been slow to embrace the qualification. The Russell Group, after an initially warm repose to the qualification when it launched in 2008, has now appeared as less sure of its position. A spokesperson for the group was keen to emphasise that the Russell Group was not responsible for admissions policies and entrance requirements of member universities, as individual universities set their own entry requirements independently of the organisation.

The qualification first came together after a number of independent schools approached the organisation requesting a curriculum that was ‘intellectually exciting', high quality, and which allowed teachers to make education exciting, according to Michael O'Sullivan, chief executive of the CIE.

Despite the impetus for the qualification stemming from the private education section, he dismissed the suggestion the Pre-U was a qualification dominated by independent and top-flight grammar schools, stating there are schools of all categories.

The CIE declined to release a full list of the schools offering the Pre-U, however, Petchley Academy, the Skinners Academy, and Fortismere School are among the state schools who do offer the qualification.  Petchley Academy and Fortismere schools received a ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ respectively on Ofsted reports from the last year.

Clare's school, Coloma Convent Girls' School, is among the state schools offering the qualification. Yet, the voluntary aided school, recently ranked among the top 25 state schools in the country in a school league table, might not be dissimilar to a private in its pupils and ethos. 

“We had our Pre-U business and management classes, as I remember, on a Monday evening after school hours. I’d have business studies [A-Level] that day and I’d have Pre-U in the evening.” 

Of pupils to leave Coloma just under 65 per cent leave with A*-B A-Levels, significantly above the national average. Clare herself, taking four AS Levels in addition to her Pre-U in Business and Management, achieved a P1 in her final results, alongside an A*, C, and D. 

The Pre-U is available in 27 individual, or principal, subjects. The top tier of achievement, D1, is ranked higher than the equivalent A* in A-Level. The qualification is divided into three sections, D (Distinction), M (Merit), and P (Pass), and then further split into grades of 1, 2, or 3. 

Amy Bond, now studying at Cambridge University, took a Pre-U in History at Watford Grammar School for Girls, like Clare alongside her A-Level qualifications. Amy's recollections of the Pre-U are predominantly positive, and it would seem in her case the Pre-U set her up for university perfectly.

"It’s really funny actually; the structure of the degree at Cambridge is so similar to the structure of the Pre-U. Coming into university it’s been such a help because we had a lecture at the beginning of first year saying get out of the A-Level mind set of history – that’s not how to do history. Whereas I sat there thinking, actually, I know a little bit about how to do history because I’ve already been taught the necessary tools and ways to answer the really similar questions." Amy said of her experiences when she arrived at university.

Although students are now coming to university with the Pre-U, many do so only as an additional subject to their qualifications. A spokesperson for Oxford University stated that although they do make offers to around 80 school-leavers with the Pre-U each year; these were mainly in combination with A-Levels taken alongside the newer qualification.

Pre-U's expansion comes as reports indicate that the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university has decreased in the past decade.

Despite Amy's success, the application of the Pre-U appears to remain limited, restricted to those schools who have the time and the resources to allow students to study extra subjects alongside the more traditional A-Levels. Although O’Sullivan stated that ‘Pre-U is designed with students across the ability range regardless of what kind of school they are in', should some students not have access to yet another qualification that others do, their abilities may count for less than their postcodes.