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Which is the right choice: A-levels, the IB or Pre-U?

In an article in the most recent edition of  School House magazine, three headmasters explain why they have chosen particular combinations of A-levels, the IB or Pre-U courses for their students:


  • Winchester College, Hampshire is an independent boys’ boarding school and the only school in the country to offer just the Pre-U courses.
  • Headmaster Dr Ralph Townsend explains that in the last two and a half decades, schools with a strong commitment to intellectual quality have become concerned about the reduced content, depth, challenge and the impact of coursework and unreliable marking of the A-level system.
  • In response, some schools adopted the IB, but its rigid requirements presented obstacles to Winchester College maintaining their ‘Division’ course – a combination of linguistic, historical, literary and cultural development; a distinctive feature of their educational programme.
  • Winchester approached the CIE proposing to develop an alternative which would restore the space, measure, content and rigour characteristic of A-levels 30 years ago. This resulted in the Pre-U and has served Winchester College since 2008. Dr Townsend says it’s restored the enthusiasm of their teachers and satisfies the intellectual needs of the pupils.


  • King’s College, Wimbledon is a large independent boys’ day school which takes girls in the  sixth form. Headmaster Andrew Halls explains the change from IB-only courses to the reintroduction of A-levels.
  • King’s adopted an IB-only sixth form in 2006 and at the time believed A-levels had become dumbed down with too many chances of retakes.
  • However, ten years later, the mood has changed with Michael Gove’s introduction of the A* grade to recognise those gaining top marks and universities doing more to ensure syllabuses are academically rigorous.
  • He believes A-levels are on the right path to regain their ‘gold standard’ reputation and even though the IB is a ‘wonderful diploma’, it does not suit everyone. For example, you cannot take 3 sciences together and there are concerns over the Higher Level Mathematics paper, which is extremely complex in comparison with the other boards.
  • So King’s have reinstated A-levels alongside the IB and as a result their numbers have doubled, suggesting that students are keen to have as broad as possible education leading up to a specialism at university.


  • Felsted School, Essex is a co-ed independent day and boarding member of the global group of schools, Round Square. Headmaster Michael Walker explains why he has embraced a truly international ethos with the IB at its forefront.
  • The combined choice of IB and A-levels is crucial to Felsted’s ethos and identity. As members of the Round Square they are committed to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme; to Hahnian principles in education; and to fostering a strongly international outlook: 20% of boarders represent 30 nationalities.
  • They are preparing global citizens for the ‘21st century literacies’ and a mix of IB and A-level courses is a vital part of this. Through the IB, students become independent learners and are taught skills needed at university, shaping students into critical thinkers.
  • IB papers are skills-based and are now a world-recognised qualification. While the IB is for all abilities, the nine components suit those seeking a broad education, who don’t yet wish to specialise, or who are interested in the connections between disciplines.
  • Meanwhile, A-levels still retain their cachet of being a ‘gold standard’ qualification, catering for those who want to specialise, or have a clear leaning toward the arts or sciences and who want to deepen a genuine interest in a subject at an earlier stage.

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