Universities will not require A-levels

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Thousands of students every year will be able to go to university without A-level passes, as part of an education shake-up to be unveiled early next year.

Thousands of students every year will be able to go to university without A-level passes, as part of an education shake-up to be unveiled early next year.

The Government will announce next month wholesale changes in the teaching of those aged 14 to 19 years old. Senior sources at the Department for Education and Skills said the change was about "opening new routes" into higher and further education.

The revamp is designed, in effect, to raise the age for leaving full-time education and training for most young people to 18 or 19 without having to introduce formal legislation.

Every pupil with five GCSE passes – whatever the grade – will be guaranteed the opportunity to learn a trade under a rejuvenated apprenticeship scheme. It will be aimed mainly at students with lower grade passes who would normally leave full-time education or training.

They will receive a certificate after successfully completing their training that can be used to go on a foundation course, and can lead to a university degree.

The pledge, which will cover 450,000 students a year, is seen as vital in securing Tony Blair's target of getting 50 per cent of all young people into higher education by the end of the decade – and offers a "back door" route to university.

It is one of several measures – including boosting the number of 14-year-olds that are given up to two days off a week from school to attend college or gain work experience and the introduction of new GCSE subjects in the autumn in work-based courses such as health care and business studies – to bolster vocational education.

Under the scheme, there will be tougher controls over the quality of training provided than in the existing modern apprenticeship programme. For the first time, all successful students will be given an apprenticeship diploma. The diploma will qualify them for a university foundation or access course.

Traditionalists will argue that it is a "dumbing down" of university standards. However, the universities say the only way they can get anywhere near the Prime Minister's target is to accept students from non-traditional academic routes because they have already creamed off almost all the successful A-level candidates.

Ministers expect about 175,000 (28 per cent) of the 450,000 eligible 16- and 17-year-olds to take advantage of the pledge, with the rest carrying on to do A-levels at school or college as they do now.

The Government has set a target date of September 2004 for implementing the guarantee. It will be on offer to all those with five GCSE passes, from A* (the highest) to G (the lowest) including maths and English.

Ivan Lewis, the Education minister in charge of implementing the scheme, said: "We see a significant number of young people not only entering modern apprenticeships but using them as a route to higher education.

"We need to break down the barriers between academic and vocational education that have led to too many people being written off and cast off on the margins of society. We want employers to offer as wide a range of apprenticeships as possible."

Many of the students on the scheme – which will be open to 16 to 25-year-olds – will also carry on working for the firms and organisations at which they have been apprentices.

Ministers have been worried about the drop-out rates under the current apprenticeship programme. Mr Lewis has admitted some of the training provided was "a disgrace". Firms offering new apprenticeships will be placed on a register so a quality check can be kept.