Plans to replace the A-Level and GCSE system are to be scrapped, Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, will announce later this week, triggering a confrontation with headteachers and exams and standards watchdogs.
Both exams are "here to stay," Ms Kelly will say, despite a recommendation by an inquiry headed by former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson that they should be replaced by an over-arching diploma which would include vocational qualifications.
Headteachers' leaders said yesterday that many schools would ditch A-Levels altogether, because they had lost confidence in the exam, and opt to do the International Baccalaureate instead. "Many schools will see that the best way to ensure a broad and balanced curriculum for bright sixth-formers is to switch to the IB," said David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.
In a White Paper to be published this week, Ms Kelly will try to boost vocational qualifications with an expansion of apprenticeships for 14-to-16-year-olds and better-funded college courses for youngsters switched off the academic track.
However, she will make it clear she wants to see high-flyers opting for vocational qualifications as well as disengaged youngsters and will insist they can be used as a route to university education.
Headteachers argue they will never be treated as equal and worthwhile qualifications while they are examined separately. "It's like a party without the host. She has left out the most important bit," said John Dumford, General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "We are all very, very depressed about it."
Ms Kelly will also set her stall against reducing the number of external exams sat by youngsters another recommendation by Sir Mike, who said GCSEs could be downgraded and marked internally by trained teachers. However, she will back plans to make A-Levels and GCSEs harder for the brightest pupils, holding out the prospect of them sitting tougher papers in their chosen subjects particularly at A-Level. Sir Mike recommended that the A grade at A-Level be split into three to allow universities to select the most talented students for popular courses now that one in five papers attract A-grade passes.
Ms Kelly will also announce a stronger focus on basic maths and English in secondary schools to counteract criticism from employers that too many school leavers are ill-equipped for the world of work.
Plans for new tests in basic skills will be incorporated into GCSE maths and English.
In the eyes of the teaching world, Ms Kelly has caved into pressure from Downing Street to avoid a row over exam standards before the election. The Conservatives are anxious to maintain A-Levels and keep GCSEs as an external exam.
It is said that when David Miliband, then the schools standards minister, briefed Mr Blair on the Tomlinson proposals, the Prime Minister only asked one question: "Are A-Levels safe?"
Ms Kelly's decision will anger her own exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which recommended the Tomlinson proposals be implemented in full, and David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, who said it was of "symbolic importance" for the Government to scrap A-Levels and GCSEs. "If we don't see this as a sea change in the education system as a whole, then we are going to miss a great opportunity to devise and develop a system that will meet the needs of all young people," he said.
The Tomlinson inquiry was set up by Ms Kelly's predecessor, Charles Clarke, after the A-Level marking fiasco of 2002.