Sixth-form choices: is there a ‘gold standard’? – Colin Marsh, Director of International Baccalaureate, Bedford School

03 Oct 2013


Colin Marsh

Colin Marsh

For students and their parents, choosing courses for the sixth form has become a complicated business. For decades, A level was the obvious means of access to higher education for students in most parts of the UK. Proposed reforms to it tended to be seen as a threat to a perceived ‘gold standard’. However, recent years have witnessed significant changes to the picture. Provision is now diversified; many schools offer more than one form of sixth form programme leading to university entry.


Reform of A levels

A level has undergone reform and is not the model familiar to those who took it between its introduction in 1951 and 2000. A significant number of schools in this country offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative. This is sometimes attributed to growing dissatisfaction with certain aspects of A level.

A similar perception might be said to account for the development of the Cambridge Pre-U, which is designed to challenge and stretch the student in ways that some feel A level, once a test for the ablest, no longer does. In response, A level now has the A* grade for top candidates to aim for.

The AQA examining board also offers its own Baccalaureate, which combines the study of at least three A levels with the Extended Project and a choice of enrichment activities that broadens the sixth form experience. There is also the Advanced Diploma the purpose of which is to provide a single coherent framework encompassing both academic and vocational qualifications. All this means that parents contemplating sixth form options for their children have much to reflect upon. Above all, they need information.

Since the Curriculum 2000 reforms, A level has been a two-tier programme consisting of AS (advanced subsidiary) and A2. AS is worth half an A level and may be treated as a self-contained qualification. Most students take four or even five subjects at AS level, in principle to retain breadth of learning, but reduce these to three at A2. A level generally consists of four units in any subject, the first two making up AS level and the second two representing A2, the second year of the course.

Criticisms have been levelled at A level in recent years, notably that its modular structure and the opportunities it affords to retake units had made it easier to achieve higher grades. This has led to allegations of ‘grade inflation’. In 2012 the A level pass rate was 98%, and 26.6% of examination entries gained grades A* or A. The introduction of the A* aims to stretch the ablest students, and to allow universities and employers to differentiate more easily between candidates. This top grade is awarded to candidates who achieve 90% in any subject at A2; in 2011 just over 8% of candidates achieved this distinction.

Earlier this year Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, announced a further major reform of A levels. There will no longer be any January exams for AS and A2 courses. All exams will be taken in the summer, including any AS retakes, which will have to be sat at the end of the A2 year. From first teaching in 2015, the government has asked the examination boards to develop new A Levels which will be two-year courses with exams at the end of that period.

Despite the controversy surrounding A level, universities still tend to consider that it encourages appropriate depth of study in individual subjects and, in the UK at least, it remains by far the best-known preparation for higher education.


International Baccalaureate

Currently, over 200 UK schools and colleges offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. At my school, Bedford School, we began teaching the IB in September 2003. Like many schools, we offer it as an option alongside A level. In world terms, only the USA and Canada have more IB students than the UK. A sharp growth has occurred over the past decade or so, at a time of increasing concern about A level. Any assessment of the development of sixth form options in this country needs to take account of this phenomenon.

Founded in 1968, with headquarters in Geneva, the IB is an independent body, free from government interference. Its appeal derives, in part, from this autonomy, and also from the immunity of its grading policy from the kind of inflation that A level has witnessed. This was one of the factors that attracted us at Bedford when we began to investigate the IB in 2001. However, its greatest appeal is that it aims to promote qualities such as open-mindedness, curiosity, reflectiveness, creativity and a readiness to take risks.

The IB student has to show independent thinking skills and make connections. To support this, courses do not have a modular structure. Students following the Diploma Programme take six subjects, three at higher level (these allow depth of study) and three at standard level (for breadth). It is compulsory to study one’s mother tongue (a literary course), at least one modern foreign language, at least one humanities subject, at least one natural science, mathematics, and either a creative subject (art or music or drama) or a second subject from one of the aforementioned categories.

In addition, students follow a course in Theory of Knowledge, undertake a research project (the Extended Essay), engage in a range of creative and active extra-curricular activities and involve themselves in activities to help others in the wider community.

All subjects are graded from seven down to one and there are three additional points for Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay. A level six at higher level is generally regarded as the equivalent of an A level grade A; level seven as exceptional. In 2012, the aggregate of 45 points was achieved by only 0.25% of candidates worldwide. This assessment system allows for refined differentiation in ways that A level, at least before the introduction of the A*, did not.

The rigour of the IB and the fully rounded educational experience that it represents make IB students attractive to universities. In an age of internationalism, not least in careers, it has the further advantage of being recognised all over the world. However, there remain certain UK university courses that retain a preference for A level – for example, Engineering at Cambridge, which wants the heavy concentration on a specific specialist area, through Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics, that the IB does not provide.


AQA Baccalaureate

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) offers a qualification that combines A level with additional elements derived, in some measure, from the IB ‘core’. The aim is to broaden the A level programme – the student choosing this option will take at least three A level subjects, but will also study Critical Thinking, Citizenship or General Studies to AS level, will undertake an extended project, and will engage in various enrichment activities outside the curriculum. Implicit in this appears to be the recognition that A level may not, by itself, help the student to acquire all the skills and qualities that university life will demand, among them research skills, a highly developed analytical ability, and breadth of awareness and experience.


Cambridge Pre-U

If the adoption of the IB has been one response, by some schools, to a perception of the inadequacies and the loss of rigour of A level, others – principally an élite group of independent schools – have responded by taking up the Cambridge Pre-U. Its purpose is to reward creativity and academic talent, and to allow the ablest students to show what they can do.

Cambridge International Examinations, which has developed the Pre-U, describes it as: inspiring, challenging and rewarding students, and preparing them for university; reporting achievement in a way that helps universities and enabling teachers to regain a passion for their subjects.

Like the IB, it is a linear course, terminally assessed after two years: there are no modules and no retakes along the way, a form that liberates teachers and students from the constraints of frequent assessment. Unlike the IB, it allows concentration on three ‘principal subjects’.

Students also have to complete a global perspectives portfolio, covering such questions as globalisation and geopolitics, and an independent research report on a subject of their choosing. It is intended as a reassertion of the exacting values of the traditional A level, preparing students for academic courses at university, and encouraging them to specialise in areas of greatest strength and interest.

The Pre-U grading system emphasises its concern to reward exceptional ability. Against the A level pass grades of A* to E, Pre-U has nine grades, three for each of three bands: distinction, merit and pass (D1-3, M1-3 and P1-3). The highest grade, D1, is more challenging even than the A level A*.


Advanced Diploma

The Labour government’s vision for sixth form qualifications was the Advanced Diploma, designed to create a coherent framework that embraces both academic and vocational qualifications. The qualification was first considered for UCAS Tariff points in 2007. Points came into effect for entry to higher education from 2010. It combines theoretical and applied elements, and will consist of essential work-relevant practical skills in English, Mathematics and ICT alongside specialist subjects.

Fourteen courses are currently available: Business, Administration and Finance; Construction and the Built Environment; Creative and Media; Engineering; Environmental and Land-based Studies; Hair and Beauty Studies; Hospitality; Information Technology; Manufacturing and Product Design; Public Services; Retail Business; Society, Health and Development; Sport and Active Leisure; Travel and Tourism.

There remains some uncertainty over university recognition of the Diploma. Although most higher education courses will accept it as an entry route, the content of subjects currently available will not be relevant to many courses at the more selective universities and some of the latter have expressed caution. Cambridge University has observed that, of the diplomas available in the first phase, only the advanced engineering diploma would provide appropriate preparation for a Cambridge course.


Most UK schools offer A level only; a very small number offer the IB only; we at Bedford School are among those that offer their students a choice – in our case between A level and IB, or, as is the case elsewhere, between A level and Pre-U. Students and parents who are concerned to choose the right school for the final stage of secondary education would be well advised to think carefully what their needs are. What skills do they need to acquire? What personal qualities do they wish to develop? What level of academic challenge is right for them? To what extent do they want to specialise at 16, or is a broader educational experience more appropriate for them? What kind of career are they likely to consider, and what might this imply for their choice of courses at 16?

UCAS manages applications to UK higher education courses and has the task of locating all the available options in sixth form education on a single scale of merit. It has a ‘tariff’ that represents a common currency against which different levels of achievement on the different programmes are accorded a points value.

We have never been more fully informed about the nature of courses and how they are assessed; the system managing university application has never been so sophisticated; and the range of options for sixth form study has never been so diverse. For those facing the task of choosing programmes and courses, there is still no substitute for personal research through visits, consulting websites, reading prospectuses and talking to admissions tutors.


Bedford School


Colin Marsh has an MA from St John’s College, Cambridge, and an MLitt from Oriel College, Oxford. He was Head of Modern Languages at Woodbridge School, Suffolk, from 1987 to 1991, and then at Bedford School from 1991 to 2006. Since January 2007 he has been Director of International Baccalaureate at Bedford School.