A-levels 'certain to disappear within a decade'

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A-levels, for 50 years considered the "gold standard" of the exams system, will disappear after all within the next decade, the Government's chief exams adviser will say in a keynote speech on Friday.

A-levels, for 50 years considered the "gold standard" of the exams system, will disappear after all within the next decade, the Government's chief exams adviser will say in a keynote speech on Friday.

Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, will make it clear for the first time that plans to replace the exams with a national diploma embracing vocational qualifications will become a reality.

Plans for an overarching diploma to replace the existing exams system were first recommended as a result of a government inquiry headed by the former chief school inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson earlier this year. They were rejected by Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, in the run-up to the general election. She said that A-levels were safe - and that separate specialist diplomas should be set up alongside them.

However, in an interview with The Independent, Dr Boston said he expected A-levels to be "out of the door" by the beginning of the next decade. He predicted that the new specialist diplomas would take over as the main qualification.

Ministers have always said the diplomas, which will initially cover vocational areas, would include elements of A-level and GCSE studies. For instance, an engineering diploma could include a vocational qualification in engineering plus a maths A-level. But during the general election campaign they emphasised that this did not mean that A-levels or GCSEs would be scrapped. Since then, Tony Blair has indicated that he believes A-levels are "too narrow".

Officially, ministers are committed to reviewing their decision in 2008. But Dr Boston believes it will not need a U-turn to bring about the diploma envisaged by Sir Mike.

He will tell a conference of headteachers and principals in London on Friday: "We now have a new diploma structure. It is wrong to describe it as a vocational qualification and inappropriate to describe it as a specialist diploma. We need to think of a new name for it, say national diploma - and give it the status and value that it deserves.

"I think the diploma can be developed ... as a genuine alternative to the International Baccalaureate appealing to the full ability range of students and having greater breadth at age 18 than A-levels. If we set about this earnestly we'll have a diploma which will be the natural qualification for people to take - A-levels will be out of the door and the diploma will take over. What we have ... is an opportunity to build a new qualification and let it earn its spurs and earn its status."

Dr Boston told The Independent that "more people have opinions about the White Paper than have actually read it".

Many people had been briefed that it would save A-levels. "When it was released the headline was that A-levels have been saved from a reform process that would have eroded standards," he said. Instead, it could have been marketed as the green light for new diplomas.

He said he had had talks with headteachers' leaders who had originally opposed the White Paper proposals but could now see the opportunities the diplomas would bring. "We're singing from the same hymn sheet as the Secretary of State on this issue," he added. Education experts had hoped the save A-level rhetoric would be toned down by ministers once the general election was over - and believe the time is ripe to start promoting new diplomas.

Meanwhile, as GCSE and A-level exams begin in earnest this week, Dr Boston predicted exam boards would soon be able to announce results earlier.

A short history of the 'gold standard'

* 1950: A-levels introduced.

* 1988: First attempt at major reform. The Higginson committee recommended sixth-formers should study five subjects at A-level rather than three. The Conservatives felt it would destroy A-levels as the "gold standard".

* 2000: AS-levels introduced for the end of the first year of sixth form. Students would take more subjects in first year before switching to the three, called A2's, in second year.

* 2002: New committee set up under former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson after fiasco of that summer's A-levels.

* February 2005: Tomlinson recommends overarching diploma covering A-levels, GCSEs and vocational qualifications.

* April 2005: Ruth Kelly rejects Tomlinson. Sets up diplomas to boost vocational qualifications.

* June 2005: Dr Ken Boston, the Government's chief exams adviser, says A-levels will disappear within 10 years.