A-levels remain on the gold standard

Broader and better exam as sixth-form study is diversified
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The Independent Online
Sixth-formers will be able to study for broader and better A-levels from next year, but this year's 18-year-olds can be confident that the standard of their exams is as high as ever.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday announced measures to strengthen the GSCE A-level exam as inspectors reported that its standard has stood the test of time.

From next year, the AS-level exam syllabus, pitched half way between GCSE and A-level, will be revamped to encourage pupils to study more subjects in the sixth form. Consultation will begin on a new AS-level in communication, numeracy and information technology.

There will also be a voluntary National Advanced Diploma involving at least four different areas of study, including either maths or science. Students who wish to acquire the diploma will have to demonstrate their knowledge of core skills.

A-level syllabuses will change to make them more rigorous, Mrs Shephard said. There will be more British history, more emphasis on pre-1900 English literature and on knowledge of grammar and syntax in modern languages. English language exams will also concentrate more on grammar and all candidates will have to take a calculator-free paper in maths.

The number of exam boards will be reduced, probably to three, which will offer both academic and vocational qualifications.

Mrs Shephard said key skills were an essential element of guaranteeing standards: "Employers want the qualifications system to be simplified, comprehensible and to include key skills, as a measure of employability," she said.

A report by the schools inspection watchdog Ofsted gave a generally clean bill of health to A-levels, countering traditionalists' allegations of decline for the second time in two months.

Despite claims that the A-level gold standard has been debased by "grade inflation", the study found standards were consistent over time and between exam boards. It said syllabuses were generally well organised, procedures were thorough and assessment was reliable.

The report came just two months after a joint report from Ofsted and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority found no evidence of any overall fall in standards over the past 22 years. The study published yesterday looked at the standards and quality of A-levels and AS-levels in seven subjects, based on a two-year inspection in England and Wales.

Inspectors analysed syllabuses, exam papers and marking schemes and scrutinised more than 2,000 scripts for 1994-6 and found a "high level of consistency" over the three years.

They also found that a new code of practice introduced in 1993 had brought exam boards more closely into line.

However, the report calls for more formal measures to be put in place to ensure standards stay steady. It recommends more systematic procedures to make sure A-levels on the same subject from different boards are comparable and to guarantee standards over long periods.

The inspectors found modular syllabuses, which put less emphasis on one final exam, had boosted the enthusiasm of students. However, they warned exam boards to take care not to let modular exams get in the way of other A-level courses or schools' general operation. The inspectors' report acknowledged the difficulty of setting standards in A-levels - the thorny problem which underlies the grade inflation debate.

The report says the process is "complex and difficult" and "depends to a large extent on professional judgement - it can never be completely precise".