A new baccalaureate-style qualification which gives sixth-formers the chance to gain credit for community work, thinking skills and a dissertation has been adopted by over 100 schools across the country.
The AQA Bacc, once dubbed the English Baccalaureate, is the latest entrant in what is a crowded field, post-16 qualifications.
But it is fast winning its spurs, headteachers' organisations are saying, as students search for an edge in university applications. The only major concern, the Association of School and College Leaders said, is that it might be so much hard work only the most conscientious will opt for it. The course, run by England's largest exam board, could also pose a threat to the Government's plans to introduce 14-19 diplomas in academic subjects from 2011, as it appears to be a direct rival.
The AQA Bacc joins A-levels, the International Baccalaureate, diplomas and the Cambridge Pre-U in competing for teachers' and students' favours. Unlike its competitors, however, the AQA Bacc can be introduced into classrooms without too many dramatic alterations to teaching. It adds extra elements to the A-levels a student might be taking anyway to come up with an overarching qualification.
To gain an AQA Bacc, students have to pass three A-levels, in any subjects, and an AS in either general studies, critical thinking or citizenship. They also have to complete an extended project or dissertation and "enrichment activities": work-related learning, community participation or personal development such as sport or music. The AQA says 100 schools and colleges have been accredited to offer its qualification next year.
Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said: "I think there will be quite a lot of interest in this, particularly because students can get it without doing too much extra.
"People want something which provides a framework for what they are probably doing anyway."
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said its members were also attracted to the idea in principle.
John Fairhurst, chair of ASCL's education committee, said: "I like what the AQA is trying to do. It is very consistent with what we would want to happen: that there is some recognition for experiences out of the formal classroom."
Mr Fairhurst said he expects his school, Shenfield High in Brentwood, Essex, to have around half of its 128 Year 13 students gaining the qualification next year.
But he added: "We worry a little bit about the academic load that the extended project imposes." It is supposed to be 30 hours' work.
Jenny Setchell, faculty manager for humanities and languages at Richard Huish College in Taunton, Somerset, piloted the qualification last year with 45 students, 43 of whom passed.
The college's "enrichment" work includes sport, music, drama, the Duke of Edinburgh award and volunteering, which students could now win credit for.
She said: "We really like the AQA Bacc. Students are able to include their academic profile while also illustrating breadth of study and all the other stuff they do that makes them rounded people. We prefer it to the International Baccalaureate."
Mr Lucas, a former government adviser on qualifications, said the AQA Bacc, like the diplomas, the Pre-U and the IB, attempts to provide a broader picture of students' achievements than was possible with A-levels alone.
They were, he said, responding to a gap in the market created after the Government failed to introduce a unifying diploma qualification, embracing A-levels, when it rejected the central recommendation of the 2005 Tomlinson report into qualifications reform.
See Magazine, pages 10-17, for a comparison of post-16 qualifications.