The demise of A-levels as the major qualification for 18-year-olds was signalled for the first time by the Government yesterday.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told a conference of headteachers in London that she hoped the majority of young people would be sitting the specialist diplomas being set up by ministers to run alongside A- levels in future.
However, she insisted that A-levels and GCSEs were here to stay as free-standing qualifications in their own right.
Her speech brought into the open a rift with her chief exams adviser, Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who told The Independent earlier this week that the diplomas, which cover vocational subjects, would become the main qualification and A-levels would go "out of the door". Their content would be subsumed into the new qualification.
Ms Kelly, speaking to a joint conference of the National Association of Head Teachers, Secondary Heads Association and the Association of Colleges, was robust in her defence of A-level exams.
"They are widely recognised and valued in the education world and beyond, nationally and internationally," she said.
However, she conceded that a second main reason for keeping the exams was public opinion. "As soon as anyone sets out to change GCSEs or A-levels, that will inevitably become the focus of public, media and political attention."
Ms Kelly also announced that plans to make A-levels harder would be introduced next year.
However, she insisted that the new specialist diplomas being brought in by the Government had to be of "world-class" standard.
Ministers are planning to introduce a series of 14 diplomas, which will cover vocational areas but will include A-level. For instance, an engineering diploma will include a vocational qualification in engineering and a maths A-level.
John Dunford, the general secretary of SHA, said it was unlikely most pupils would study the diploma if A-levels remained.
"That won't happen," he said. "While A-levels are put on a pedestal - as they have been by the Government - then a large number of young people will want to do them. They will be the access to the more prestigious universities."
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