Baroness Blackstone, Education minister with responsibility for sixth forms, told a conference of heads: "I do not regard a package of two or even three A-Levels on their own as a full-time programme of study in their own right."
In a speech outlining the Government's A-level reforms, due to be launched next year, she said: "I am well aware that many young people work very hard at their A-Levels or GNVQs. I have little doubt that there is scope for many to do more."
She also warned that "the current post-16 programme is inadequate preparation for the demands of the modern world" and urged schools and colleges to offer a much broader range of subjects in the sixth form.
Lady Blackstone's comments, which come just days after the end of this year's A-Level exams, provoked an attack from head teachers at the Secondary Heads Association conference in London, who said sixth formers were working "harder than ever".
John Dunford, association general secretary, said: "This sends entirely the wrong message because students have put in many many hours of private study. That is one of the valuable parts of the British system.
"Sixth-formers will be dismayed to hear the minister saying they have not been working hard enough. Sixth- formers now work much harder than previous generations.
"This is saying that the present system is not stretching people enough. I can say that doing three A-levels does stretch people." Proposals for a tough new sixth form curriculum involve students taking up to five AS- levels, each worth half the current A-level. Students would then top up three subjects to the full A-level standard.
New "world-class tests" are being developed as an extra exam to stretch the very brightest students.
Teachers insisted that sixth formers had to work harder and harder because of increasing demand for university places. Mr Dunford, former head teacher of a successful Durham comprehensive, said students studying three A-levels needed to spend at least 30 hours a week studying in class and on their own.
Under the reformed A-level system, students would have to study up to 40 hours a week, he said. "It is not manageable and not intended to be manageable for average students. The 40 hours a week is for above average students." Heads support moves to increase the breadth of subjects studied in sixth forms, but fear that it will be impossible to implement the changes without extra funding. Lady Blackstone said: "Students need to cover a broader range of subjects, but in similar detail. Many of them are able to study both science and arts subjects.
"The jobs for the future will require a broad range of knowledge, skills and experience, and certain skills like information technology will be even more important. The post-16 curriculum must reflect that."
t A five-point plan for reform of the university applications system was proposed by vice-chancellors yesterday. Universities should abolish "insurance offers" held by applicants in case they miss the grades for their first choice university, said Professor Martin Harris, chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.Reuse content