English, maths and science should be optional for all older pupils, says exams board chief

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Students should not be forced to study subjects such as English, maths and science under the Government's shake-up of A-levels, one of the country's most senior examiners said yesterday.

Kathleen Tattersall, a member of the government inquiry into education for students aged 14 to 19 and head of the country's biggest exam board, told The Independent that making subjects compulsory could deter students from staying at school after the age of 16.

The issue of how much compulsion should be in sixth-form studies is likely to become the most controversial decision to be taken by the inquiry. In a report last month, Mike Tomlinson, who is heading it, outlined plans for sweeping away GCSEs and A-level and called for a "core element" of studies for 14- to 19-year-olds which would include English, maths and information technology.

If the inquiry were to adopt the baccalaureate model, all students would have to study subjects from the main areas of the curriculum - including foreign languages and sciences.

However, Ms Tattersall, who is also the director general of Britain's biggest exams board - the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, said: "I stand at the voluntary end of this because you can motivate students more if they can choose what they study."

Her comments will find echoes in government circles - where ministers are expressing caution before going ahead with further reform of the examination system.

Ms Tattersall, who also chairs the Joint Council for Qualifications - the umbrella body responsible for publishing this year's exam results - warned there had been too many ill-thought out responses to exam reforms during her 30 years as an exam board officer. "Always, concerns have led to a sort of knee-jerk reaction with reforms being given little chance to settle down," she said.

She cited the case of the GCSE, which began in 1988 but had to be changed to fit in with the new national curriculum a year later. Even A-levels, which for years have been thought of as the "gold standard" of the education system, were greeted in the 1950s with headlines calling them "a bigger gamble than the Derby".

She said the much-criticised introduction of AS-levels had been a force for good.

"What we have done is broken the mould where there is nothing between GCSE and A-level and an awful lot of people dropped off at the end [of two years in the sixth-form] with nothing or dropped off in the middle," she said.

As a result of demands for more public accountability, what used to be described as "the secret garden" of exams and the school curriculum was now "a public park," she said.

Ms Tattersall retires next month from both the council and the alliance.