An alternative to A-levels backed by top independent schools like Eton will end the "level playing field" between state and private sixth-form students, the National Union of Teachers has warned.
The private schools' sector has drawn up the Cambridge Pre-U. Teachers from Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse and other independent schools have devised a traditional-style exam, which will have oral presentations or vivas, extended essays and long problems in maths and sciences. There will be no modular exams.
The Pre-U, to be introduced from 2008, is supported by private schools, which feel the A-level no longer fulfils its original purpose of a rigorous and educationally valid selection exam for university.
The present A-level system is also being undermined on another flank because the Government appears to be moving towards a 14-19 curriculum closer to the blueprint set out in the Tomlinson report, The TES has learned.
This week, Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, were on the verge of announcing at the Labour party conference that all pupils were to be given an entitlement to study for the international baccalaureate. It is understood a last-minute decision to hold off for now was taken, in part, due to concerns it would be seen as a U-turn over Tomlinson.
But ministers are believed to be keeping an open mind and are also considering introducing extra courses for A-level students to ensure they are up to scratch in English and maths.
John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, said of Pre-U courses from Cambridge International Examinations (CIE): "We are very concerned about this indeed.
"It looks like an attempt by the private schools to get a unique and special qualification, so they can claw back their dominance of leading universities. It's a separatist move which could be costly for the vast majority of kids."
This week Andrew Boggis, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'
Conference, said private schools risked damaging the exams system if they opt for courses like Pre-U (see page 2).
Kevin Stannard, of CIE, said the board was seeking accreditation for the Pre-U to be taught in state schools and was committed to making it widely available. He said: "This is not an attempt by independent schools to establish pre-eminence, but a recognition that improvements are needed in the quality of what students and teachers experience (in A-levels)."
The A-level is also under threat from the International Baccalaureate.
Ministers have noted more state than private schools are now offering the baccalaureate and are considering how to respond. Mr Blair has already declared himself a fan. During last year's election campaign he praised the broader range of subjects it offered and called the A-level "too narrow".
There is also consideration of whether A-level students should study extra courses in maths and English, partly in response to concerns of employers and universities that school-leavers lack skills.
Many teachers say that moves to create exams such as the Pre-U are a reaction to the Government's rejection of the 2004 Tomlinson report, which would have replaced A-levels and GCSEs with an overarching diploma.