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Key post-16 curriculum choices

 – Simon Smith, Head of Rydal Penrhos and former Deputy Head (Academic) of Haileybury
Much has been written about the relative virtues of the different post-16 qualifications. Now that we are part way through the phased reform of A levels, it is certainly worth revisiting the issue of the differing sixth-form curricula. The programme of reform will, however, take three years to take effect in full. A number of subjects such as History and English are now into their first year as linear courses, others such as Philosophy or Spanish will start teaching in September 2016, while some linear courses such as Mathematics and Classical Civilisation will begin first teaching in September 2017. Until linear courses are introduced the current modular courses remain in place.

A levels remain the most popular, recognised and arguably respected of all post-16 qualifications and if, as promised, the reforms bring about greater challenge and depth of study, they will be even better and remain a qualification welcomed by universities, colleges and employers. The new A levels are returning to something more akin to those seen before 2000; linear with all exams taken in the Upper Sixth and the end of the old AS exams at the end of the Lower Sixth. The removal of compulsory exams in the Lower Sixth provides more time for learning and less time is needed for exam drilling. As the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) succinctly explained: ‘Freeing up Year 12 will allow students to focus on wider and deeper learning, not just exam preparation’. Some schools may continue to offer the new AS examinations at the end of the Lower Sixth but the AS is a separate qualification from the final A level achieved 12 months later.

New A levels will be less bite size and offer more time for studying a subject in real detail. Some schools will return to their pupils studying just three subjects over two years. Others will continue with the four to three model after one year of study. The A* grade has already brought about an opportunity for academic ambition and differentiation.

The A-level option offers the chance to really specialise with subject choices. For those wishing to study Engineering at university or college, for example, Mathematics and three sciences would provide a good foundation. Many schools are also looking at ways to enrich the A level offer further. A pupil might study, for example, three A levels and take an in-house course in Creative Writing or Ethics.

Some schools are also looking at the International A level qualification offered by Cambridge. These qualifications are less prone to Government interference and so provide a genuine alternative specification, as the three UK exam boards (Edexcel, OCR and AQA) are obliged to provide similar content.

Further enrichment

Cambridge’s Pre-U is another linear, rigorous alternative to A level offered in some schools providing an unashamed academic preparation for university, one which the new A level largely models. Even more encouraging is the opportunity for further enrichment, for example, through the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). This is equivalent to roughly half an A level and provides excellent preparation for the type of reading and research work that is common undergraduate practice. In August 2015 nearly 35,000 students submitted an EPQ. At Haileybury all A level pupils have the opportunity to study the IB Theory of Knowledge course or write an Extended Essay – a 4,000-word research paper on a subject and topic of the student’s choice; I call this A level +.

A quality education is one that also fuses the curricular and the co-curricular together. For example, resilience in Latin prep can be learned through violin practice, discipline and organisation nurtured in the Combined Cadet Force can improve self-study skills, while Physics might be better understood through application in cricket.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma

The fact we are in the middle of another round of A level reforms highlights the strength of an alternative post-16 qualification – the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. Since the Diploma’s inception more than 45 years ago the IB has not deviated from its basic principles of global acceptance, transferability and breadth across six key subject areas: English, a second language, a humanity, a science, mathematics and then either a creative subject or an elective to specialise. Pupils must also focus on research and critical thinking, through the 4,000 word Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge courses, and have an appreciation of a healthy balanced lifestyle through the Creative Action and Service (CAS) programme. The IB also espouses ten qualities or virtues which must be explicitly taught through the programme – these include being Caring, Principled and Open-Minded. 

The Diploma has also remained largely immune from grade inflation with a consistent global average of 29 points (out of a possible 45) – the UK schools average is around 33 points, Haileybury’s average is typically closer to 37 points. Even when there is subject reform it is part of a carefully scheduled programme and involves teachers rather than politicians – our Director of Professional Development is currently part of the History curriculum reform group redesigning the course for 2021. Reform is, therefore, bottom up as part of a six-year cycle rather than top down upon the whim of the in-post Government or Secretary of State for Education.

Much is made of the opportunity for breadth in the Diploma and how it suits the all-rounder. One must be careful here. Certainly the opportunity to continue with the study of a larger number of subjects is a strength and through the Higher and Standard Level combinations (three of each) students can still specialise. Higher Level Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry can prepare a pupil for the most demanding undergraduate science degrees in the same way that Higher Level English, History and Philosophy could prepare one for a humanities-based degree. Higher Level Mathematics is regarded as more challenging than A level Further Mathematics and when one adds in the Extended Essay, it is easy to understand why universities are keen to offer places to Diploma applicants.

It has been argued that the IB Diploma is not for everyone and the compulsory Mathematics course or the requirement to take a second language prevents access for all. However, the Maths Studies option or the ab initio (beginner) language courses mean pupils are only challenged to a GCSE+ level and, more importantly perhaps, have the opportunity to develop and improve their confidence in subjects which otherwise might be abandoned at 16 with later regret. The IB Diploma is therefore just as much a preparation for university study in terms of its academic rigour as it is a philosophy of education for life beyond secondary and tertiary education.

For those seeking an alternative to traditional schooling the IB also offers a more vocational option – the IB Careers Related Certificate which combines academic study (at least two IB Diploma subjects) with career preparation training and more vocational qualifications such as BTECs e.g. a Level 3 BTEC in business or art. Currently available in just four schools in the UK it offers a distinct alternative to its more academic counterpart with a mix of external and internally assessed components.


BTECs, another post-16 curriculum option, have fewer formal examinations but instead continuously assess the pupils as they develop skills and knowledge in practical, real life situations such as Sports Science, Construction or Engineering. Such courses offer much more hands on, possibly outdoor, learning opportunities and proactively support future employment through apprenticeships or otherwise but without restricting Higher Education entry.

I will close with a point I have made many times to current or prospective parents. The very best schools offer students the chance to flourish, embrace opportunity and challenge while nurturing sporting or cultural interest. Choice is excellent (over the next few years schools will increasingly offer a mixed diet of post-16 qualification), it is what we are used to in modern society, qualifications are important too, but ultimately inspirational teaching, experiences and positive relationships make far more of a difference than the type of certificate one leaves school with.


Simon Smith became Headmaster of Rydal Penrhos in January 2017. Before that he was Deputy Head (Academic) at Haileybury. After graduating from York with a BA (Hons) in History and Economics, he completed his PGCE, also at York, before teaching History at Hurstpierpoint College. He then moved to Worth School where he was Head of History, IB Diploma Coordinator and finally as Director of Academic Administration sat on the school’s Senior Leadership Team during which time the school moved from all boys to fully co-educational. In 2010 he moved to Haileybury. As well as managing the College’s provision of teaching and learning, Simon was a lower school tutor, a prep school governor and on the Education Committee of Haileybury Turnford, an Academy sponsored by Haileybury.

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