A-levels should be scrapped, says think-tank

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The Government is being urged today to execute a U-turn and scrap A-levels - by one of Tony Blair's favourite think-tanks.

A paper published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) calls for the exam to be phased out and replaced by a British-style baccalaureate, to encourage more students to stay in full-time education after they reach the age of 16.

The move, announced prior to this Thursday's A-level results, is designed to increase pressure on a post-Blair government to implement the proposals outlined in a government inquiry into exam reform by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector.

Insiders are optimistic that Chancellor Gordon Brown would look more favourably on Sir Mike's plan to scrap the existing GCSE and A-level system, in favour of a diploma which would cover both academic and vocational qualifications.

Mr Blair rejected the idea in the run-up to the 2005 election - fearing the Conservatives would claim he was axing the "gold standard" of the education system. However, he did leave the door ajar by agreeing there would be a review of the decision in 2008 - a loophole the IPPR is hoping can be exploited.

The IPPR pamphlet points to disturbing figures which show far fewer pupils in the UK stay on in education after the age of 16 than in almost any other westernised country.

The UK is 27th out of 30 countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. One in four 16- to 18-year-olds in the UK does not undertake any form of training or education. The figure for Germany, for instance, is one in 10.

The IPPR argues that the only way to encourage a massive growth in pupils staying on is to develop widely respected vocational qualifications - and says this will not happen while the two strands, academic and vocational, are separate.

Richard Brooks, IPPR associate director, said: "Practically all young people in the UK should now be in education or training until they are 18 or 19 years old. Yet not only are too many still missing out, but current policies don't seem to be increasing the number of those who stay on in learning until the end of their teenage years."

The IPPR rejects the Government's solution of introducing a range of specialised diplomas to run alongside A-levels and GCSEs in 14 subjects - including leisure and tourism, and construction and the built environment.

A powerful supporter of the IPPR's argument is the former schools minister David Miliband, now the Environment Secretary. Mr Miliband, who argued for a diploma in an IPPR pamphlet back in 1990, is thought to have been instrumental in insisting on the 2008 review as a means of supporting the decision to reject the Tomlinson proposal.

Mr Brooks added: "The new 14-to-19 diplomas will not flourish alongside an unreformed system of A-levels, and it is time for a more radical approach."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "A-levels are here to stay. 2008 is simply an opportunity to review progress on delivering reforms - it is not an opportunity to re-run the Tomlinson debate."