Not from Scotland's successful Highers system, or the baccalaureate that Wales has developed. Instead, the exam is under attack in England from three major qualifications: the international baccalaureate, the Pre-U and the 14-19 diplomas. Michael Shaw and Warwick Mansell compare the four competing exams
Predictions of the demise of A-levels have been premature. True, the qualification now faces its toughest competition in half a century. Yet it remains the most popular exam for students planning to attend university, with about 85 times more teenagers in Britain studying it than the international baccalaureate (IB). More importantly, it continues to be the best-known "brand", particularly among parents and employers.
Peter Bodkin, headmaster of Tettenhall College, a private school in Wolverhampton, has staunchly defended A-levels because he believes they still discriminate effectively between good and excellent students.
He believes it enables pupils to play to their strengths and specialise in a way that they can't with the IB. "Change also takes a long time, and the people who employ graduates remember A-levels as it's the system they were brought up with," he says.
A-levels have suffered a press-battering over the past decade that has shaken public confidence in the qualification. The fact that 97 per cent of pupils now pass the exam may chiefly be because schools are better at tracking students, preventing them from entering exams they will fail and encouraging them to retake AS papers.
But critics have seen the high pass rate simply as conclusive proof of dumbing-down. They also took delight in a Durham University study published in August, which indicated that a student who took the exam 20 years ago would have got a result two grades higher this year.
Press attention around some of the A-level curriculum's content hasn't helped. A new AQA anthology for English language and literature includes writing by Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, but also an extract from a Manchester Metrolink Tram Guide, which led the Daily Mail to report that pupils were sitting "A-levels in how to read a tram timetable".
Luckily, universities are not taking such reports too seriously. A survey by ACS, the private school group which supports the IB, shows that the majority of higher education admissions tutors oppose the phasing-out of A-levels and feel the media give the exams an unfair hand. The tutors also said that the A-level remained the best qualification for developing in- depth subject expertise, even if it was outshone by the IB in other categories such as encouraging creativity.
However, they were unconvinced by the new A* grade, which will be awarded from 2010 to help them distinguish between straight A candidates.
Trials have suggested that disproportionate numbers of A*s will go to pupils from private schools, placing universities in a tricky position as they are already criticised for doing too little to widen access. Oxford has announced it will not make conditional offers involving A*s when they are first introduced, and the 1994 group of universities, which includes Exeter and Durham, has warned the grade could make it more difficult to "maintain a balanced intake between applicants from different backgrounds, such as those from private and state-funded schools".
Peter Bodkin also sees the A* as an "unnecessary bit of bureaucracy", calling instead for universities to see pupils scores from selected modules.
A key weakness of A-levels remains their relative lack of breadth compared with baccalaureate qualifications. That problem may be partly fixed by the new extended projects, introduced in September, which are optional and worth half an A-level. Students have to carry out research then submit a dissertation, performance or other artefact such as a video, then give a presentation to their teachers and peers.
Schools may choose to go a step further and opt for the AQA baccalaureate, taken by 845 students last year. This is essentially a wrapper qualification and is awarded to pupils who do three A-levels, the extended project, plus community work or work-related learning and an AS in a "breadth" subject, such as general studies, citizenship or critical thinking.
Supporters of the IB may look down on this as a compromise, but for schools wishing to keep A-levels it could provide the best of both worlds.
Popularity - Completed by about 270,000 UK pupils a year.
First introduced - 1951 (Split into A2 and AS in 2000).
UCAS points - 120 points for an A grade to 60 for a D.
Subjects studied per qualification - One, though pupils tend to take four AS exams then continue three of those subjects at A2.
Number of subjects available - More than 50.
Flexibility - Pupils can choose any combination available at their schools or colleges and can drop a subject after AS level.
Universities' attitude - Accepted by all and defended by universities, although admissions tutors can sometimes find it hard to choose between candidates with straight As.
Verdict - Still regarded as the gold standard. But resitting AS exams has made it easier to gain top grades.
2. International baccalaureate
All sixth formers at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire study the international baccalaureate (IB), with the average student gaining the equivalent of four As at A-level. Hockerill has ranked as the top-performing comprehensive in A-level league tables for the past three years, even though it doesn't actually teach them.
Simon Dennis, headteacher, says the IB's attraction is that it is a complete package. "You can't just pass a bit, you have to pass it all."
"A-levels seem very narrow and create different silos of learning. The IB creates young people who are open-minded, independent learners who take risks. Most of our pupils are trilingual too."
As at all IB schools, students at Hockerill must learn six subjects, including a foreign language, maths, and a choice of science, humanities and arts subjects. Hockerill opts for immersive language learning, meaning that pupils can attend entire geography or maths lessons that are taught in French.
The IB had been taught in a handful of UK schools over the past 40 years, but has recently seen a dramatic surge in popularity. The number of pupils studying it in private schools alone has doubled in the past year alone, according to the Independent Schools Council.
Yet private schools account for only 59 of the 141 that are accredited to offer it in the UK, with the majority now in the state sector. State school interest has soared since 2006, when Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, pledged funding to help at least one maintained school in every authority offer it by 2010. The Conservatives have suggested they would give the qualification even more support.
Crucially, universities appear impressed too. In the ACS survey, the IB came top, with more than twice as many admissions tutors naming it than A- levels when asked which system helped students most to thrive at British universities. "IBs are very good and I would like to see more from state schools," one admissions tutor said. "And for international applications it is the only comparison."
The academics also felt that the baccalaureate was a better qualification than the A-level on eight out of nine measures, including encouraging independent inquiry and creativity.
Its one comparative weakness was its ability to develop "in-depth subject expertise". Critics of the "bacc" have highlighted this point, noting that history A-level, for example, offers students the opportunity to explore the subject in far greater detail, while the IB is limited to shorter study of a handful of 20th-century and a few 19th-century topics.
However, Jill Rutherford, director of Ibicus, which runs training courses for IB teachers, told The TES earlier this year that the only undergraduate degree she felt might require too much subject specific knowledge for baccalaureate students was maths at Cambridge.
At Hockerill, Simon Dennis believes that the criticism about the IB's depth is fair, to an extent. "But the counter argument is that the IB creates independent learners who study subjects in more detail themselves," he says. "Our head boy did his extended project on water projectiles, while another pupil examined the battle at Galipoli from the Australian perspective."
Schools with challenging intakes may be deterred by the fact that pupils cannot gain the diploma unless they complete all elements, although certificates can be gained for individual subjects. But Simon says that students do not have to be the brightest in the world to gain the IB diploma.
"They have to be committed and have to love learning, but the notion that they need to be academic geeks is wrong," he says.
Popularity - 3,160 students in the UK this year, 80,000 worldwide.
First introduced - 1968.
UCAS points - The maximum is 768 - equivalent to seven A-level A grades - for the highest possible score of 45 IB points.
Subjects studied per qualification - Six. Students also need to complete a 4,000-word extended essay, extra-curricular work and a course on the theory of knowledge.
Number of subjects available - More than 70 main subjects, within six subject categories, plus at least 40 different languages.
Flexibility - Students have to take one subject from five of the six categories, including maths, a science and a foreign language. All main requirements must be met for the full IB diploma.
Universities' attitude - Accepted enthusiastically by most British universities.
Verdict - Often regarded as tougher than A-levels, because of their breadth but not depth.
3. Pre - U
Coloma Convent Girls' School in Croydon, south London, is one of the few comprehensives to offer the Cambridge Pre-U out of the 50 schools doing so this year. "The girls have enjoyed the challenge of the new course. It has been more work for them and the teaching staff, but their commitment and enthusiasm is making it worth the effort," says Andrew Corish, assistant head.
The new qualification, which began teaching this term, is potentially the most educationally stretching and is attracting support from a Who's Who of famous private schools, including Eton, Winchester, Charterhouse and Dulwich College. Teachers from the independent sector have also been heavily involved in its design.
The Pre-U - the U stands for university - was conceived as an attempt to offer an A-level-style qualification that takes the exam back to its roots as purely preparation for higher education.
The "Cambridge" in the title comes from the board that runs it, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). Although the board is run by the university, the Pre-U is not designed to be a Cambridge entrance test and is intended to be accepted across higher education.
The main part of the course offers a learning experience that has similarities to the old-style A-level, for example by eschewing exams until the end of the sixth form. It aims to avoid the resit and module culture and to allow more space for fresh teaching.
At a press conference to launch the Pre-U this summer, Tim Moore-Bridger, the headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon, said that A-levels devoted too much time to taking and preparing for exams, and not enough to essay writing.
"My daughter did AS this summer," he said. "She is doing four subjects, and she did something like 14 exams by the end of May (in Year 12). It's dreadful. That's why I am in favour of the Pre-U, although it is up to individual departments to choose which course is right for them."
The extra time spent not having to worry about exam preparation is already proving useful for teachers, according to feedback from the Pre-U's designers at CIE.
Andrew Ireson, examinations officer at Oundle School, says: "The pupils doing Cambridge Pre-U Economics are really enjoying it. The whole linear nature of the course has allowed us to look at recent (economic) events without any fear of getting behind with the syllabus."
CIE says, however, that it is not simply turning back the clock in returning to end-of-course exams. It points to innovative aspects to the qualification, including the requirement that students complete a research study, and a global perspectives course, in which they will study topics ranging from medical ethics to the rise of China as an economic power, before taking an exam, submitting coursework and making a presentation on this element.
The Pre-U is unashamedly academic and none of the 26 subjects available are vocational. It is designed in part to help universities select between bright pupils and graded on a passmeritdistinction basis, with the highest mark designed to be above an A-level A*.
It has faced criticism for the risk it may set up a two-tier system, with highly selective schools taking it and comprehensives favouring A-levels and diplomas.
Of more concern to teachers, however, may be the risk factor: with the absence of resit opportunities and the lack of a "progress check" in the form of exams midway through the course to offer a guide as to a student's final grade, will it be harder for them to extract good grades?
As with any new qualification, the Pre-U's currency with universities is not fully established, while it has yet to be allocated UCAS points.
However, Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Council and an expert in qualifications, does not anticipate this being an issue. "Given the course's genesis in being designed as preparation for university, and its association with Cambridge, I would not anticipate problems," he says.
Popularity - 50 schools signed up for this academic year.
First introduced - 2008.
UCAS points - Not yet known.
Subjects studied per qualification - One.
Number of subjects available - 26.
Flexibility - Students take any subject they want and get grades in that subject. An overarching award, or diploma, is also available, for which students must take three subjects, complete a global perspectives course and write a research report.
Universities' attitude - Universities have been closely involved in the Pre-U's development, so are likely to respond well to the courses' educational content.
Verdict - Likely to be stretching. With high-flyers expected to be the main market, schools should look for lots of distinctions.
Diplomas - an attempt to create a work-orientated curriculum geared to the needs of 21st-century employers - have had a difficult baptism. But students and teachers are genuinely enthusiastic about their future, as are some of the partnerships running them.
They were conceived in a 2005 White Paper that was published in the wake of the Tomlinson inquiry into 14-19 education and first had to win over sceptics who wondered why all qualifications, including GCSEs and A- levels, were not being rolled into one overarching diploma framework, as Tomlinson had proposed.
The Government has been accused of creating an academicvocational divide, with the diplomas standing to be the poor relation, in terms of status, of its rival qualifications.
The courses have also attracted criticism for the low numbers signing up in this, the first year: only 12,000 14 to 19-year-olds after initial publicity had suggested 50,000. Numbers of students opting for it post-16 are thought to amount to under 3,000.
However, the diplomas' supporters say that it's still early days, with 2008 just the first leg of a five-year programme that will culminate in the courses being available nationwide in 17 subjects by 2013. In the long term, their backers argue, the diplomas will stand or fall by their content, and by the support they receive from employers and universities.
The new qualifications are flexible. The creative and media qualification offers courses in 20 employment fields, including interactive media, film and TV, creative writing, drama, music, dance and art. The Government says this means that no school or college can offer all of the options and that collaboration is essential. But because the courses are logistically complicated, this could involve months of inter-school planning meetings.
Thousands of employers have been involved in discussions on their design, so it is hoped that they will have currency with many major firms.
However, the position regarding universities is less clear. The Government has published endorsements from many higher education institutions, but the reality will not be known until the first selection decisions are made, in 2010. Recent studies have confirmed the view that admissions tutors can be sniffy about vocational courses.
Given that this is the case, taking the advanced diploma could be something of a gamble for a student aiming at university. However, supporters point out that the qualification is flexible enough to include other exams: engineering students, for example, can take a science A-level as part of their diploma.
It also retains Tomlinson's original idea of attempting to plan an entire learning programme for a student across several subject disciplines. This contrasts with A-levels, where subjects are treated separately.
Although teachers are also wary about the workload involved in preparing for what is different qualifications, the diplomas already have their enthusiasts. Hugo Lopez, for example, is curriculum director for ICT at Hanham High School in south Gloucestershire, where six students are taking the advanced IT diploma. He says: "The benefits and advantages it brings far outweigh the downsides in terms of it being a new course."
Diplomas, he believes, offer students complete freedom to specialise in areas that interest them, such as project design or computer game coding.
If reactions continue to be this positive, the diploma stands every chance of success
Popularity - 1,988 students enrolled post-16 (of 12,000 in the whole 14-19 age group).
First introduced - 2008.
UCAS points - The maximum score for the main part of the diploma is 300 points, but students can also get up to 120 more points for the Additional and Specialist Learning section, giving a combined total of 420.
Number of subjects available - Currently five, expanding to 17 by 2013. Within each diploma subject, there are many areas of potential specialism. All must gain functional skills in English and maths to GCSE equivalent, plus complete a project and work experience.
Flexibility - Huge array of options within the main part of each course, plus the ability to incorporate GCSEs and A-levels.
Universities' attitude - Official endorsements from many universities, but admissions tutors are likely to be harder to win over. Meanwhile, larger employers have been involved in the courses' design, but smaller firms may be less aware of it.
Verdict - Some subject content could be stretching. UCAS points available seem generous for the time required to teach it.