It is no wonder that education secretary Michael Gove is a big fan of the Cambridge Pre-U, a qualification lauded for its academic rigour. Indeed, he has previously suggested that A levels should be reformed along the same model to spark a "revival of the art of deep thought".
And now FE colleges appear to be agreeing with him. Richmond upon Thames College has become the latest to announce that from September it will offer Pre-Us in eight subjects. TES has learned that seven other colleges are also offering the qualification in a more limited number of subjects.
"It's stretching; it's a challenge," said Kathleen Wildman, Richmond's curriculum divisional director. However, the Pre-U is not just being introduced for the most able candidates. "The top grades are tougher than getting an A* at A level, so they are worth more in the Ucas tariff. But at the same time, the tariff is inclusive enough for the whole A-level cohort. We hope it will be of interest to students who are interested in developing their skills in a particular area," she said.
The college also prefers the non-modular approach of the two-year qualification, which Ms Wildman believes offers more "learning time" and a better preparation for the independent work that students undertake at university.
The growing interest from FE colleges builds on the popularity of the qualification in school sixth forms. Since its introduction in 2008, the Pre-U is now on offer in 138 schools across the country, almost half of which are state schools.
As part of a pilot scheme, Richmond upon Thames College is offering the Pre-U in classical heritage, drama and theatre, economics, English literature, fine art, history, music, and philosophy and theology, with the potential to expand the range of subjects if it proves popular.
Ms Wildman anticipates that most students will take one Pre-U alongside three AS levels, as opposed to the four AS levels they take at present. Initial interest has been high, with 100 people attending an information evening about the qualification.
The college, which currently has 3,500 students aged 16-19 on its books, hopes the Pre-U will improve its appeal in the face of competition for students from neighbouring schools. September's 16-19 intake was down 13 per cent on the previous year, and the market is only going to get tougher, with eight schools in its catchment area looking to open sixth forms in the next couple of years. "We want to offer a qualification that's right for everyone," Ms Wildman said.
This is all welcome news for the exam board behind the Pre-U, University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). "We are delighted that Richmond college has chosen to offer Cambridge Pre-U to students from September 2012," said Di Palmer, CIE's director of assessment services. "Take-up of Cambridge Pre-U is growing in popularity for schools across the board. The number of students taking it has doubled in two years, showing a growing appetite among schools and FE colleges such as Richmond college for a qualification that helps students to bridge the gap between school and university."
But John Bangs, a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, is more sceptical about the benefits the qualification's linear approach can bring to students in the FE sector. "The Pre-U is an untested exam: it's still only used by a minority of schools," he said. "I think FE colleges are trying to give themselves an edge in the marketplace. We are getting various sections of the post-16 marketplace splitting and moving into any areas they think they can get a greater intake from."
However, the announcement by Mr Gove last week that he would like universities to overhaul A levels could further boost the popularity of the qualification.
WHO'S ON BOARD?
Institutions offering the Cambridge Pre-U:
64 state schools
74 independent schools
8 FE colleges