Government advisers are pressing Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, to introduce new-style Special Papers. Students would take the papers in their A-level subjects but would be asked questions which tested their analytical abilities rather than their knowledge.
Mrs Shephard, who is considering the proposals, has been told by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority that they represent one of the best ways of stretching the most able pupils.
They would replace the existing S-levels and would be welcomed by both schools and universities as an alternative to the unpopular notion of "Starred" A grades, put forward by Mrs Shephard's predecessor, John Patten.
"Starred" A grades are already awarded for very high marks at GCSE but there have been widespread complaints that they put pressure on candidates without adding to their abilities.
In addition to the special papers, SCAA has suggested the introduction of a national prize scheme for the top A-level candidates and a diploma of merit for those who gain consistently high marks in all their papers.
Backers of the new exam believe it will solve the difficulties which universities have in choosing between a growing number of candidates who expect to gain a grade A at A-level.
For example, a history student whose A-level papers might include questions about the Reformation could take a Special Paper that would ask for an essay on the relationship between history and politics.
The percentage of candidates gaining A and B grades has risen sharply, from 27 per cent in 1989 to 32 per cent last year. Over the same period the number of students taking the existing S-levels has declined from 17,000 to 9,500. Schools do not offer them because universities rarely ask for them; universities say they do not ask for them because too few schools take them.
But leading members of the Headmasters' Conference, which represents public schools, believe a new, rejuvenated S-level could gain popularity with both schools and universities. Each subject could be offered by just one exam board, they say, so that the numbers taking each paper would be high enough to make them economically viable for the boards.
Tony Evans, head of Portsmouth Grammar School and a former chairman of the HMC's academic policy sub-committee, first proposed the idea a year ago. "We want to stimulate the curious mind rather than just basing exams on known fact," he said.
Margaret Donaldson, assistant secretary of the Oxford Colleges' Admissions Office, said that the abolition of the university's entrance exam in 1997 could lead to a revival of interest in S-levels. "If there was a revival it is possible that they would be rather more important as a means of selecting candidates," she said.
George Turnbull, director of public relations for the Associated Examining Board, the biggest A-level board, said: "If there is a need for a qualification then I am sure all the examining boards would be keen to do it. But we might end up providing even more examinations which aren't taken up," he said.
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