New Advanced Subsidiary exams to be taken after a year in the sixth form could revolutionise university entrance, with universities making offers on the basis of actual results rather than predicted grades as at present.
Yesterday Ministers emphasised the introduction of "new world-class tests" for the brightest pupils to run alongside A-level after the Conservatives and a few academic independent schools accused the Government of diluting the A-level "gold standard."
Teachers welcomed the reforms, although some heads said the announcement did not go far enough and that a broad range of subjects, including arts and science, should be compulsory.
From next September, the Government wants students to study four, five or even more subjects from the age of 16 instead of the present three. They would then take the new AS exam, representing half an A-level, before choosing whether to concentrate on three or more subjects in the second year.
The new courses will be offered in six "modules" or bite-sized chunks to be taken throughout the two years or, if schools wish, at the end. Students will be able to "mix and match" these with advanced vocational qualifications.
Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, said yesterday that A-level standards would be maintained because pupils would work harder.
"A-levels have played an important role in our education system for the last 50 years and they will continue to do so with the same rigour, demands on study and high standards.
"But young people in England are taught for an average of around 18 hours a week compared with 30 hours in other European countries."
Universities welcomed the changes and the vice-chancellors' committee said it wanted members to take account of the new AS exams.
Professor Alan Wilson, Leeds university's vice-chancellor, said he was sure universities would use AS grades when deciding whether to make conditional offers of places. At present, offers are based on teachers' grade predictions, 65 per cent of which are wrong.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, accused the Government of being "scared stiff" of backing a broader 16 to 19 curriculum. "It has not intention of making such a curriculum compulsory because it is not prepared to invest any additional money in the staffing, training and other needs which will be a direct result of the broader programmes of study."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "More students will do four subjects in the first year - only a few of the most able will do five."
The reforms will include new voluntary tests in business skills such as communication, numeracy and information technology.