Shephard backs tougher A-Levels

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The Independent Online
Plans for tougher vocational qualifications and more challenging exams at GCSE and A-level will be put forward this week by Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on the curriculum.

His review, which will bring the most fundamental changes to qualifications for l6- to 19-year-olds since the start of A-levels more than 40 years ago, is expected to be accepted in full by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. She will back proposals to bring in outside checks on vocational qualifications and ensure that their content is made clearer.

On exams, Sir Ron's report proposes a harder GCSE maths exam for the brightest students, to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-level and university maths.

At A-level, exam boards will be encouraged to offer extra S-level papers to extend the most able pupils. The new exams will be more closely tied to A-levels so they fit better into school timetables. There will be a new intermediate exam, the Advanced Subsidiary, to be taken after a year in the sixth form.

Sixteen-year-olds will be able to embark on four or five subjects before deciding after one year to specialise in two or three for A-level. At present most students study two or three A-levels for two years.

The report envisages that some students will take a mixture of academic and vocational subjects. A national certificate will record both vocational and academic qualifications.

GNVQs, the vocational qualifications which parallel A-level, will be renamed applied A-levels. Sir Ron is expected to argue that they should be set and tested externally. At present they are set and assessed by students' own teachers.

GNVQs do not have a syllabus but Sir Ron will suggest that the knowledge required for all courses should be specified because of criticisms that the content is too vague.

The report will argue that a small number of disaffected 14-year-olds should start attending further education college courses and work-based training while continuing to attend school. Sir Ron's thinking is in line with Labour Party policy published last week.

Sir Ron's proposals stop well short of a revolution. Students who wish to continue with three traditional A-levels will be able to do so. The report aims to end the impasse in education for 16- to 19-year-olds which has existed since 1988, when the Government turned down plans from the Higginson Committee for all students to take five A-levels. Teachers say the present A-level is too narrow. Attack on schools, page 7