A-level critics put pupils off, minister says

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The Independent Online

The Government's drive to persuade more 16-year-olds to stay on at school or college is in peril as a result of criticism of A-level standards, David Miliband, the minister for school standards, warns today.

Writing for The Independent on Sunday, he admits the UK's record in offering education or training for 16-to-19-year-olds is "indefensible".

Britain lags 25th out of 29 Western countries for the percentage of 17-year-olds in full-time education and training, according to a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Ministers are planning a range of measures - including payments of £30 a week to 16-to-19-year-olds from poor homes to attend school or college - to lift the UK from the foot of the league table.

However, Mr Miliband warns: "Even our best efforts may not prevent one summer ritual. The annual 'dumbing down' debate is not only dispiriting for students and teachers, it also makes it harder to persuade young people to stay in education.

"Our future economic success requires us to educate more young people to a higher standard than ever. Personal prosperity will increasingly depend on it."

Mr Miliband's warning comes despite his confidence that there will no repeat of last year's A-level fiasco.

Ministers also plan the most radical shake-up of the examination system for more than 50 years, to be outlined in a report by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, to be published on Wednesday. The report will put forward options for a new baccalaureate system to replace A-levels.

However, Mr Miliband is anxious to rebuff critics before youngsters receive their exam results. The Institute of Directors has claimed that successive rises in the A-level pass rate over the past 18 years have devalued the exam. Education experts claim such criticism has led to confidence in the exam being dented.

While the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, is cautiously optimistic that it has overcome last year's problems, it acknowledges that more work needs to be done to restore the exam's image.

In a robust defence of A-levels, Mr Miliband argues: "If easier exams were the reason why more students get better results, there would be little point in encouraging greater numbers to do them.

"I have not the slightest interest in seeing certificates handed out to those who have not earned them.It is perverse to argue that just because more people achieve a standard, then the requirements must have been lowered."

Under the options Mr Tomlinson will outline, youngsters will be required to take on a broader range of studies - up to six subjects plus compulsory lessons in basic skills. He also wants extra-curricular activities to be rewarded.

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