A-level boards to be axed

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The number of A-level exam boards and syllabuses is to be cut back amid concerns of variable standards, ministers will announce tomorrow. In a move to protect the reputation of the A-level "gold standard", badly dented last month by revelations that one board had inflated pupils' grades, the present system is to be streamlined to ensure greater consistency.

The shake-up is likely to see the number of A-level boards reduced from six to just two or three through a series of mergers, and the range of syllabuses - at present more than 100 - slimmed down.

The intervention by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, on the advice of government curriculum advisers, amounts to an admission that the present exams free market has fuelled growing concern over standards. Schools, conscious of pressure to maximise exam passes in order to secure a high league table position, are suspected of shopping around for a pick and mix of the easiest syllabuses. Competing exam boards, meanwhile, have been accused of lowering pass thresholds to attract a greater share of the market.