The number of elite independent schools offering the Cambridge Pre-U, a new qualification designed to prepare the brightest pupils for university, could double in the next two to three years, a survey has found.
Research by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) found that around one in five top private schools could be running the qualification in at least one subject by 2013.
Currently, only one in 10 of the 127 schools that took part in the survey are running the Pre-U, but approximately the same number said they were planning to introduce it in the next couple of years.
This is seen as the "test year" for the qualification, as the first cohort of candidates will start university in the autumn. However, only around 90 schools have so far adopted the Pre-U (see box), and the qualification is facing stiff competition from the advanced level "extended project", also designed to prepare sixth formers for university study.
Around two-thirds of schools answering the HMC survey said they were already offering, or planning to offer, the qualification.
The Pre-U could also face "marketing issues" for schools, as the traditional A-grade is broken down into three levels. This means parents whose children previously received the top grade at A-level would could now get a level "2".
"It doesn't make for confident dinner-party conversation," said Andrew Grant, chair of the HMC and headmaster at St Alban's School.
The survey also found that the International Baccalaureate (IB) is continuing to grow, with 20 respondents offering it.
The HMC said the IGCSE, offered in one or more subjects in two-thirds of the schools surveyed, "remained strong". However, the Government's refusal to allow it to count in league tables has deterred some schools.
The Government's 14-19 diplomas have failed to make an impact, with only three schools looking to be involved in offering one.
Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the HMC, said 2010 would be a key year for private schools exploring alternative qualifications, as August would see the first batch of A-level students awarded the A* grade. "The introduction of any new award is a break with the past and presents challenges for the regulator and awarding bodies to be fair to the students in that year," he said.
He added that if there was any "whiff of suspicion" surrounding the new award, it could lead more private schools to shift to alternatives such as the IB or Pre-U.
However, Joe Davies, headmaster of Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, whose sixth formers study both A-levels and the IB, added: "Schools are becoming more and more diversified in their approaches as we have a duty to serve the interests of the pupils in our schools."
- Around 90 state maintained and independent sector schools are currently offering the Cambridge Pre-U. Sixty per cent are in the independent sector and 40 per cent are in the state sector.
- The most popular subjects are English, Mathematics and GPR (Global Perspectives and Independent Research).
- One in six schools currently offering the Pre-U in individual subjects is also offering the full diploma, which includes GPR.