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The Government has finally published its response to the Dearing proposals for reforming A-levels. Its announcement was treated as something of a damp squib by the media, and headteachers' leaders have accused it of wimping out. But in my view it has shown great good sense.

It has tackled the one glaring weakness of the present system: its narrowness. With the new one-year exam as a half-way house to A-levels, it will be possible for students to bring more breadth to their studies by taking more subjects.

GNVQs are to be organised into packages the size of A-levels, paving the way for flexible combinations of academic and applied studies. There is room for more subjects, the Government suggests, because A-level students in England are typically timetabled for only about 15-18 hours a week compared with the 30 hours of their counterparts in France and Germany.

Three cheers, then, for the Government. It seems to have taken the view that the general public knows where it is with A-levels and has decided to leave well alone. It has even put on hold the compromise proposal of an overarching certificate, to see whether there is any real need for it.

To understand just how brave a decision it has been for the Government to stay with A-levels, we need only look at what has been urged upon it. First, there has been the baccalaureate-type award, whereby students would have had to study some specified combination of subjects.

In the original Dearing version (later modified), this was to be a science, a social science, a language and an arts subject, plus key skills. Although apparently promoting breadth, it has to be asked: what are the advantages of studying, say, chemistry, sociology, French and history over some combination that has been willingly chosen, as a basis for higher education? Imagine having to take your worst subject at a time when you were free to leave school anyway, because some committee somewhere thought it good for you.

The Government has also been commendably cautious on key skills. It wants to see what they look like in practice before introducing them. As represented in GNVQs, they are neither separately taught nor tested. When attempts are made to set out the precise content and assessment, "communication" and "application of number" begin to look remarkably like - surprise, surprise - English and maths. If a student has passed these subjects to a high standard at GCSE, what is the point of repeating them in bowdlerised form at A-level?

"Improving own learning and performance", "working with others" and "problem-solving" have so far defied attempts to set them down. This leaves only "information technology" - an important tool, for which our skills need to be continually updated, but do we also need to be certificated?

A third pressure has been to unitise everything. The Government has been urged to separate all qualifications into a number of free-standing components and allow people to tailor-make their own awards.

Again, this is superficially attractive but disastrous in practice, as New Zealand has already found out. Qualifications organised in this way become a kind of educational Lego that does not necessarily mean anything or lead anywhere.

Unitisation also results in a great increase in complexity. Specification and assessment have to be shifted down to the unit level, so if a qualification is broken up into 10 units, it generates 10 times the bureaucracy it did beforehand.

The Government is now confronted with a proposal from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for a common qualifications tariff. The idea is that all qualifications, or bits of them, should have a numerical value. Whatever its apparent attractions, this too is deeply flawed.

It completely glosses over, for example, the difficulty of attaching authentic numbers to different awards, and implies spurious interchangeability. If you are recruiting to a university physics course you want evidence of capability in physics; any score accumulated by study of leisure and tourism, for example, is an irrelevance. The tariff system also appears to revive what the Government has so far rejected by giving extra points for baccalaureate-type combinations.

But UCAS wants to go beyond university entrance. It believes it can assign numbers to achievements and experiences from the cradle to the grave. These, too, will presumably be treated as if they are addable in various ways. On this basis, the meaning of life really does become 42.

UCAS even wants the numbers to be entered on to a smart card - which looks suspiciously like introducing an identity card by the back door - so that it can become the biggest "dating agency" for jobs in the world. It also wishes to run the student loans scheme. What is UCAS thinking of? It is, after all, supposed to be simply a means of facilitating university admission.

So far on qualifications, the Government has shown commendable sureness of touch. This nonsense from UCAS will be a further test of its acumen.

The writer is professor of policy research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.

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