Bright pupils to start degrees in 6th form

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The Independent Online

Bright sixth-formers should start studying for university degrees while still at school, ministers will say in a White Paper later this month.

Bright sixth-formers should start studying for university degrees while still at school, ministers will say in a White Paper later this month.

Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, will signal her intention to stretch the most gifted pupils in state schools, her first major announcement since taking over the role.

As a result, youngsters will be encouraged to study "modules" for university degrees - particularly in maths and science - alongside conventional sixth-form courses.

The move is backed by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, appointed by Ms Kelly's predecessor Charles Clarke to head an inquiry into secondary school reform after the A-level marking fiasco of 2002.

Then, nearly 2,000 pupils had their results upgraded as muddle and confusion reigned over the system of AS-levels and A-levels which had just been introduced.

The Government's response to Sir Mike's report, the White Paper, is to be published at the end of the month. Ms Kelly is anxious to make stretching the brightest children in state schools a priority. Pupils will also be encouraged to sit A-levels and GCSEs early if their teachers believe that they will pass them. Downing Street believes that stretching the brightest students is essential to wooing back middle-class parents who opt to send their children to private schools.

Ms Kelly's decision - which will mean sixth-formers taking Open University courses or attending Saturday morning sessions at local universities - is being welcomed by headteachers.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Headteachers see it as an excellent way of meeting the needs of the brightest children, especially in maths and science. For very bright children the examination syllabus is not and should not be the whole of their education, and teachers look for both greater breadth and depth in their studies."

The modules will count towards degree courses once the youngsters start full-time at university.

The experiment is already being tried out in a handful of schools, notably Monkseaton Community High School in North Tyneside, where Laura Spence, denied a place at Oxford University despite five A grades at A-level, was a pupil.

It is one of several issues to be tackled in the White Paper, which is in response to Sir Mike's call for the existing A-level and GCSE system to be replaced by a new overarching diploma.

However, ministers are set to fudge the issue of the diploma and stress that the two exams' future is safe.

This will annoy David Bell, the current chief inspector of schools, who last week urged both Mr Blair and Ms Kelly to scrap the exams.

He said he believed more radical change to the curriculum was necessary to combat growing indiscipline and the worrying number of schools - more than 2,000 - failing to improve standards.

Ms Kelly is already making it clear the two exams will be retained as the building blocks for any new system.

However, ministers are keen on another of Sir Mike's recommendations - introducing a compulsory 4,000-word extended essay for A-level students, to develop thinking skills.