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The ‘Pre-U’ scandal

BERNIE EVANS reveals the scam of top-flight private schools running their own exclusive exam system instead of A-Levels

WITH the abolition of private schools now gaining increased support, there is yet another aspect of their provision which needs closer examination.

Some of the press have taken notice of the fact that most schools in the independent sector have chosen to ignore the newly reformed GCSE examinations, preferring, for obvious reasons, IGCSE examinations, for their already highly privileged pupils. What is being ignored, however, is that A-Level examinations, the accepted route into higher education for nearly all state school students, are also being avoided.

Three Freedom of Information (FoI) requests have revealed that, whilst there is much less regulation involved, pupils entering the examinations preferred by private schools have almost three times as much chance of getting A*/A grades than from A-Level entry.

The recent scandal involving examination-cheating at Eton and Winchester revealed the existence of examinations taken by privately educated students, equivalent to A-Levels but not the same, and whose grades are recognised by universities as entrance qualifications. Called Pre-Us, they include questions set by teachers in the private sector.

The exams are run by Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE), a part of Cambridge University. Answering questions before the Commons select committee on education in 2017, Simon Henderson, the headmaster of Eton, admitted that seven of his staff set papers for exams taken by their own pupils.

It was further revealed that CAIE is not a member of the Joint Council for Qualifications, the organisation which is responsible for examination regulations and inspections. The exams watchdog, Ofqual do not even include the CAIE when reporting on malpractice! Not one member of the Committee thought it necessary to delve deeper and ask why a clutch of elite public schools prefer Pre-U exams to A-Levels.

On the Pre-U website, Winchester College recommends these examinations because they “are very liberating for teachers.” Certainly, they “liberate” staff from the indignity of their students’ results being compared to those achieved by state school students in like-for-like conditions.

Having taught A-Levels for over 40 years in such comparatively unliberated institutions, I knew nothing about the existence of such examinations, and I doubt if many teachers in state schools realise that their students are competing for top grades and university places with privately educated pupils whose grades are earned according to different standards.

An FOI request to the Department for Education for a breakdown of 2017’s Pre-U results, subject by subject, enables a comparison with A-Level results. History was the most popular Pre-U examination with independent schools, with 745 pupils entered for this rather than A-Level. Of those, 451 were awarded distinctions, the equivalent of A*/A grades; that’s 60.5 per cent, compared to 23.4 per cent gaining the same grades at A-Level.

For English Literature, 74.9 per cent received the equivalent of A*/A grades at Pre-U, compared to the A-Level percentage of 24.8 per cent. The Physics figures were 65.8 per cent compared to 29.6 per cent, Maths 67.7 per cent as opposed to 41.8 per cent.

In the less popular subjects, the percentages of top grades were even more remarkable, with an attainment rate of 82.6 per cent in the Spanish Pre-U compared with 34 per cent at A-Level, and Music 78.6 per cent compared with 19 per cent at A-Level.

In October 2017, David Lammy revealed how both Oxford and Cambridge, recipients of over £800m of taxpayers’ money each year, consistently enrol around 80 per cent of their intake from the top two social classes, with more offers being made to pupils from Eton than to students on free school meals across the whole country.

The number of ethnic minority students accepted is so low that Lammy concluded there has to be “systematic bias.” Meanwhile, Oxford makes more offers to applicants from five of the home counties than to the whole of the north of England.

Such figures speak for themselves, but only tell half the story, when Britain’s most prestigious schools train their students to sit exams that systematically evade the kind of standardisation and regulation that supposedly allows for the comparable evaluation of aptitude in any given subject.

An FoI request recently revealed that in the academic year 2017-18, there were 125 undergraduates with three or more Pre-U qualifications but no A-Levels at Oxford and Cambridge, and 1,075 students with a combination of three or more A-Level and Pre-U qualifications.

As well as further squeezing the chances of pupils from underprivileged backgrounds and underfunded schools, the figures indicate a permanent minority whose route to the country’s top universities is beyond public scrutiny.

I sent an FoI request to Ofqual asking what measures were taken to ensure Pre-U exams were regulated to the same degree as other examinations.

Ofqual, I was informed, does “set rules that apply to all awarding bodies and all regulated qualifications, including the Pre-U,” and awarding organisations have to “make an annual statement confirming the extent to which they have complied” with them.

There are, however, “additional rules for A-Levels,” as they, unlike Pre-Us, are “national qualifications, based on content set by the government.”

These rules are called Subject Level Conditions, with Condition H3, for example, insisting that all awarding organisations, when setting a level of attainment, review “similar qualifications made available by other awarding organisations” to promote consistency. Why, I wonder, is this not a prerequisite for the Pre-U exams?

I also asked about the number of Pre-U papers set and marked by teachers from the independent sector and was told that Ofqual “does not collect this information.”

My last enquiry related to how Ofqual ensured Pre-U results and grading were comparable with A-Level results and grading, and whether Ofqual standardised marked papers from the different awarding bodies to guarantee consistency. The response was that Ofqual does not “make such comparisons.”

So Ofqual does indeed “regulate” Pre-U exams, but not in the same way it regulates A-Levels; if both exams are accepted as university entrance qualifications, shouldn’t the exam “watchdog” be equally stringent with both?

Shouldn’t the Commons Select Committee on Education now have more questions for the chiefs of CAIE and Ofqual? And isn’t it time that the assumption that the attendees of elite public schools really are brighter than the rest of us was tested on a level playing field?

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