A-levels face major reform

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The Independent Online
A MAJOR change in A-levels, which would allow sixth formers to sit a much broader range of subjects along the lines of Scottish Highers, is being considered by the Government's exams advisers.

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.