Monday, August 14, 2006


Leading state schools have joined a growing defection by the independent sector away from the official exam system amid worries over the declining quality of A-levels. The schools have decided to enter pupils for the International Baccalaureate (IB), a Swiss-run qualification seen by many as more broadly based and challenging than British exams. More than 100 British schools will offer the baccalaureate in the next academic year, almost three times more than in 2000. Its growing popularity comes as results to be published this week are expected to show a rise in the A-level pass rate for the 24th year in succession.

Examiners expect the results, which will be released to schools on Thursday, to show a pass rate of more than 96%. The results will fuel criticism that the system fails to stretch or identify the brightest pupils. Universities have complained there are so many students with A grades they can no longer judge ability from exam results.

Leading state schools already offering the baccalaureate include Kingshurst city technology college in Birmingham, which has scrapped A-levels. Most of the 50 state schools that offer the qualification do so alongside A-levels. Six state schools that will offer the IB for the first time from September include Thomas Hardye school in Dorchester, Dorset, which has exam results above the national average, and Norton Knatchbull boys' grammar school in Ashford, Kent.

Two independent schools - Sevenoaks, in Kent, and King's College, Wimbledon, London - have abandoned A-levels for the baccalaureate. Independent schools offering the option of the baccalaureate include Fettes College in Edinburgh, Tony Blair's old school, and North London Collegiate, one of the academically most successful schools.

Pupils who opt for the IB are required to study the humanities and sciences. They typically study six subjects, including English and maths, a language, a science, a social science, such as history or geography, and a creative subject such as drama or art. Pupils also have to write a 4,000-word essay, study the theory of knowledge and undertake community work.

The temptation of the IB will be increased by new figures suggesting further deterioration in the reputation of A-levels. There were steep falls in the numbers studying difficult subjects such as maths and physics between 2000 and 2005, but in media studies and religious studies, candidates grew by more than 80%. In an attempt to counter criticism of "dumbed down" exams, Jim Knight, the schools minister, said last week the government intended to trial harder questions in A-level papers and would experiment with a long essay or extended project. Ministers are also considering introducing a new A* grade that would be given to the top 7% of candidates.

From next year universities will be able to specify the grade they require for all six units that make up each A-level, rather than the one overall grade they currently demand for each. The traditional two-year "gold standard" A-level was scrapped in 2000 when David Blunkett was education secretary. Replacement A-levels have been split into two halves - AS-level and A2. Each subject in turn is split into six units, with pupils allowed an unlimited number of retakes

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