Sir Ron Dearing, chair of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has ordered an investigation into a new exam system under which students would take up to five subjects after one year in the sixth form.
If the scheme goes through, it will bring to an end a battle to broaden the English sixth-form curriculum that has lasted for nearly 30 years. School teachers and university academics have long regarded A-levels as too narrow and specialised, particularly compared with their equivalents on the Continent. A-levels have been blamed for the innumeracy of arts- educated civil servants and managers, and for the illiteracy of scientists.
Several recent schemes have failed because Tory ministers were determined to protect the tried and tested A-level "gold standard". But now ministers have hinted that they may be ready to shift their position.
The new exam would recognise the achievements of those students - about one-third - who at present either fail A-Level or drop out. It would also allow the brightest students to take a wider mixture of science and arts subjects.
At present most students take two or three A-levels in two years. In future they could leave school after gaining the new qualification or continue for another year to take A-levels.
Exam advisers are also discussing the introduction of "core skills" of literary, numeracy and information technology to A-level courses. These are already required for GNVQs, the new vocational sixth-form courses, and their development at A-level could lead to an 18-plus diploma, involving a mixture of core skills, A-level and vocational courses.
Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education, told a head teachers' conference earlier this month that vocational exams had already broken the monopoly of A-levels. "I do not want to give the impression that A- levels are the be-all and end-all because we have already moved away from that." He said he was "more broadminded" than teachers thought.