Minister condemns A-levels

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A GOVERNMENT minister launched a scathing attack on the A-level "gold standard" yesterday, saying it was out of place in the modern world.

Baroness Blackstone, the Higher Education minister, told universities they should insist on applicants studying a far broader range of subjects than the traditional three A-levels taken by most sixth formers. And she called for reform of the university admissions system, saying academics could be missing "potentially brilliant" students by relying on A-levels.

She told the annual meeting of the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals in Manchester that universities should act to bring into higher education thousands more mature students and people from poor backgrounds. The minister said: "It is increasingly clear that the traditional model is wrong, both for young people themselves and for the nation.

"The traditional post-16 curriculum was designed for a world which no longer exists - a world in which higher education was the preserve of a highly specialised elite." The problem "has bedevilled the English and Welsh education system for too long".

She said: "It is a fact that young people in England and Wales typically follow a narrower programme of study at advanced level, and are taught for less time, than young people in other European countries. There is, frankly, no good reason why this is so."

Vice-chancellors said broader study in sixth forms was to be welcomed, but warned it might lead to an increase in four-year degrees if standards were to be maintained in highly specialised subjects such as engineering. Martin Harris, Manchester University vice-chancellor and the committee's chairman, said: "There is a challenge for all of us in reconciling a broader 16 to 19 curriculum with one of the shortest degree programmes in the developed world."

Reformed A-levels, including a new half-size AS-levels, are to be introduced from 2000 with a new "key skills" qualification in communications, computing and applied maths. Ministers hope the changes will encourage sixth formers to take five or more subjects, while maintaining the rigour of a conventional three A-level course.

Lady Blackstone said universities should act to make sure young people from poor backgrounds had a real chance of entering higher education.

Middle-class teenagers dominate universities, with three times as many young people from professional backgrounds entering higher education as those from working class homes. Lady Blackstone said: "I want you to look at your admissions policies. Are you missing promising, perhaps even potentially brilliant, candidates by not being imaginative enough in the way you select people?" She called for more opportunities for part-time students and the expansion of evening classes run by university departments.

From next year, university tuition fees will be waived for part-time students on benefits, who make up one in ten of all part-timers in higher education. An extra 15,000 full-time undergraduate places will be created, with 20,000 part-time places, as part of the Government's effort to attract an extra 500,000 students into further and higher education by 2002.

Professor Harris denied that universities discriminated against any social group and said he wanted to offer opportunities to all people capable of benefiting from a university education.