Sixth formers will face tougher A-level exams in all subjects except maths and science under proposals put forward in a fundamental review of the exam to be published later this month.
Exam boards say it will be the first change in A-level standards since the exam was introduced more than 40 years ago.
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, is understood to have accepted the controversial plan put forward by Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on exams. Critics of A-level say it is already too difficult and that the drop-out and failure rates are too high.
Mrs Shephard asked Sir Ron to look at the standards of A-levels in different subjects after research revealed that it was much harder to score a top grade in maths and physics than in English and business studies. Pupils taking sciences might score as much as a grade lower than pupils of similar ability taking some arts subjects.
Sir Ron says in his report that the differences are unacceptable and that marking of "easier" subjects must be toughened to match that in the harder ones.
Ministers say more pupils must be persuaded to take science at A-level in the interests of economic prosperity. Teachers believe pupils are put off science because they think it is "difficult".
Research has shown that maths, physics and chemistry are the most difficult subjects with German, French, history, biology and economics not far behind. Geography, classics and Spanish are of average difficulty and English, business studies, home economics, design and technology and communications studies the easiest.
The report proposes that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority ,which Sir Ron heads, should have new powers to compel the exam boards to review the difficulty of all A-level exams. The authority's officials would also have power to check that A-level papers were being marked more strictly.
Changes will not be put into place for at least three years. So the first students to be affected would be those beginning A-level courses in September next year.
Sir Ron believes it would be unfair to introduce changes for students who have already chosen their A-level subjects.
His proposals are part of a package of measures which include the introduction of a new intermediate exam after one-year in the sixth form to encourage students to take more subjects.
He is also recommending a national certificate which would include both A-levels and vocational qualifications as a way of promoting parity of esteem between the two.
Sir Ron's decision on A-level marking will please traditionalists who fear that efforts to bring the exam closer to vocational qualifications will dilute standards.
John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads' Association, said 15 per cent of pupils already dropped out of A-level courses and a further 15 per cent failed.
"That is a national scandal and this will make it worse. There is still a lot of pressure from parents for people to do A-level when they should be doing other courses."
However, Mr Dunford hopes that some less able pupils might be encouraged to take the new one-year exams being proposed by Sir Ron. "Then some of the problems about A-level being too difficult might be overcome," he said.
Graham Able, head of fee-paying Hampton School in London, said he welcomed Sir Ron's plan.
A survey of academic schools belonging to the Headmasters' Conference of top public schools showed that they wanted other subjects brought up to the same standard as A-level rather than vice versa.
"We feel there should be comparability between all subjects," Mr Able said.
George Turnbull, of the Associated Examining Board, said: "This will change A-level standards which have not altered since the exam started. The standards we apply in all subjects have been inherited and have been maintained.
"How do you judge English literature against physics? This will have a knock-on effect in universities and the standard of degrees."
Sir Ron tried to discover whether A-level standards have changed over time but was unable to uncover enough evidence to come to a conclusion.
He is also overseeing another study to determine whether modular A-levels are easier than traditional ones.
Failing to add up, page 4
- More about:
- Higher Education
- London School Of Economics And Political Science
- University Of The Arts London