Leading article: We need to reform A-levels now

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The Independent Online

The August exam period has left the Government with several burning issues to resolve. No one can deny that the A-level results - which saw the second biggest rise in the number of A grades awarded in the history of the exam - added urgency to the review of the qualification that is being undertaken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the exams watchdog.

The big question is how will ministers react to pressure to make the exam harder so that universities can select the brightest young people for the most popular courses. The approach most favoured at the QCA is to include harder questions and make them available to every candidate too answer. This idea would have the merit of not leaving schools to decide who are the brightest candidates - as would happen if there was a separate harder paper for suitable candidates. This latter approach is thought likely to benefit the independent schools who would be more likely than state schools to enter pupils en masse.

The QCA approach has our support. In the meantime, we support the initiative to supply universities with individual candidates' marks and module grades to help them choose the best. Marks would seem an essential tool for admissions tutors. It would, after all, be possible for a candidate with outstanding grade As in three modules who had just missed out on As in three other modules to be a better bet than someone who had scraped six grade As. That said, admissions tutors need to take some responsibility themselves in deciding which candidates are most worthy of a place.

The second question is this: when are ministers going to admit that they made a massive blunder in allowing 14-year-olds to give up modern foreign languages? The drop in the take-up of languages at GCSE has been devastating and may be difficult to repair. An element of compulsion is needed if young people are to study a foreign language, even if it is only at the level of the new specialised diplomas rather than A-levels. After all, as Sir Mike Tomlinson pointed out in his report on 14-to-19 education, it makes sense for a student studying for a vocational qualification in leisure and tourism to learn a language as a compulsory part of the curriculum.