New AS-levels, representing half an A-level, will be introduced from 2000, along with reforms to bring General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) into line with academic exams, the education minister, Baroness Blackstone, announced.
A new "key skills" qualification designed to improve sixth-formers' abilities in literacy, maths, communications and computer skills will also be tested. If successful, courses could go nation-wide from September next year.
But ministers shelved plans for a new advanced certificate for sixth- formers to encompass both academic and vocational studies. They also put back proposals for a mix and match system of qualifications based on building up credits from a range of courses.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, has been asked to carry out further work on both ideas. Changes were also announced to safeguard A-level standards by limiting the number of resits allowed on controversial modular A-level courses.
Lady Blackstone said the changes would "play an important part in improving choice and raising standards for sixth- formers, while helping to achieve our goals of a well- educated, well-equipped workforce, with a strong commitment to lifelong learning."
But head teachers said the announcement represented a wasted opportunity.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "If a government with a thumping majority cannot support the much- needed radical solution to post-16 qualifications, then it never will. The Government clearly understands that the narrowness of the current sixth- form curriculum is a fundamental problem, but refuses to produce the appropriate solution."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, added: "This is a tremendous lost opportunity in not breaking down the vocational academic divide which has bedevilled the English education system for generations."
Judith Norrington, of the Association of Colleges, which teach the majority of sixth-formers, warned: "If the Government is serious about wanting a broad-based curriculum including more subjects and key skills it will cost money."
Yesterday's announcement follows a lengthy battle over whether to move towards a French-style baccalaureate for sixth-formers, which includes a range of subjects. Ministers are thought to have been concerned about accusations that such a move would have watered down the A-level "gold standard".
But Lady Blackstone said she hoped the changes would encourage sixth- formers to broaden the traditional three A-level course by taking one- year AS-levels as well. She added: "The current system has been criticised for many years for being over-specialised and inflexible. Compared with our international competitors young people in England tend to follow a very narrow programme of study at advanced level."