Ministers in storm over 'easiest ever' A-levels

Record numbers to get top grade. Call for exam to be scrapped
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The Independent Online

In results that will support allegations that A-levels are becoming easier every year, The Independent on Sunday can today reveal that one in four pupils will receive the highest grade, compared with one in five last year.

With the overall pass rate also set to rise again, moving beyond the record achieved last year and close to 97 per cent, publication of the results on Thursday will reignite the debate about whether A-levels have become totally discredited and should be replaced.

Universities and employers are expected to reiterate their complaint that they can no longer gauge students' ability because top grades are so common. Universities believe the A-level is so weak as an indicator that they have introduced their own entrance examinations in some subjects. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, is set to stake her political career on defending the "gold standard" qualification, which remains popular with parents.

But the head of the UK's exam boards predicts that ministers will soon be forced to accept that the exam should form part of a wider diploma to give a more accurate account of students' abilities.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, chief executive of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, says a shake-up is inevitable, arguing the Government has "left the door ajar" for reform.

The chief cause for concern is the rising number of candidates who are awarded the top A and B grades. The proportion of papers obtaining an A is expected to rise to nearly 23 per cent, up from 22.4 per cent last year.

Ministers hope to stifle the growing clamour for reform with a series of speeches insisting that the rise in pass rates reflects improving ability rather than grade inflation.

Lord Adonis, the former No 10 education adviser ennobled and made a minister by Tony Blair, will lead the defence on the eve of the results' publication in a speech to trainee teachers in Canterbury on Wednesday.

Earlier this year Ruth Kelly rejected the key recommendation of an official inquiry by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson that the exam be replaced by a diploma. Instead she has introduced separate diplomas for vocational subjects.

But Dr Johnson Searle believes the compromise will fall to overwhelming pressure to combine vocational and academic qualifications. "Once you've got the specialist diplomas, you've still got the door left ajar for the overarching diploma," she said. "The White Paper was written very, very carefully to leave that door open. There will definitely be that potential.

"I don't believe in a scorched earth policy, though. We've got some very good strengths in both the academic and vocational field and we need to keep them."

Both Dr Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the Government's exams watchdog - and David Bell, the chief schools inspector, believe that the Government will eventually have to introduce the diploma recommended by Sir Mike Tomlinson. Dr Boston has indicated that A-levels will be "out of the door" within a decade.

It was reported last night that Ms Kelly would seek to head off the storm by pledging action to make the exam tougher. Education officials are said to be working on proposals for an optional half-hour "extension paper" to identify the brightest students.