Leading article: A-level reform strikes the right balance

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YOU DID not have to be a visitor from Mars to be puzzled by the prominence given by some of the press to a very small story this week. Apparently, a private school in Sevenoaks, Kent, is going to stop teaching a mixture of A-levels and the international baccalaureate, and drop the A-levels. The school's motive, and that of the newspapers that reported it, is ideological. It and they oppose the Government's reforms of A-levels, which will allow sixth-formers to study a wider range of subjects.

Educational conservatives complain that the reforms will devalue the A-level "gold standard" - part of the wider "dumbing down" of exam standards that has already, according to the reactionaries, rendered GCSEs worthless. This is nonsense. The reforms will retain the value of the core A-levels, while adding a new "silver standard" to broaden the base of the sixth- form curriculum. What the conservatives will not accept is that exams need to change to reflect changing needs.

But the reputation of academic qualifications is immensely important, and so the Government was right to proceed with caution - thus offending the educational liberals on its other flank, who wanted David Blunkett to go further. What Mr Blunkett has done is essentially to add to the existing A-level system, and to allow schools and pupils to decide how much of the new flexibility they want to use. Pupils will be able to study four or five subjects in their first year in the sixth form and then to specialise in their second year if they want to. But the new AS-level exams after the end of the first year will add rigour, rather than dilute it.

It will also have the huge benefit of rationalising the present chaotic and unfair university entrance system. Instead of universities having to make provisional offers of places to pupils on the basis of teachers' predictions of A-level grades - two-thirds of which turn out to be wrong - they will be able to make firm offers on the basis of the AS grades pupils in fact achieve.

Being attacked from both sides is not always a guarantee that the Government has the balance about right. But, in this case, the new structure meets the objectives of making the sixth-form curriculum less narrowly academic and modernising the admissions system for the expanding universities, while preserving the prestige of A-levels.