Wider-ranging sixth form exam proposed in education shake-up

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A new five-part sixth form exam was proposed yesterday as part of a government review of A-levels which could lead to the biggest changes in qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds for 40 years.

Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief adviser on exams, is also considering a common national certificate for all 18-year-olds. The certificate might include all present vocational and A-level exams or might be awarded only to those who achieved the national target of two A-levels or the vocational equivalent.

Sir Ron, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said: "I can see the arguments for a common certificate in showing that the nation holds in equal regard academic and vocational achievement."

At present, most sixth formers study two or three A-levels. Sir Ron said: "I am considering whether there should be five subjects which would require some breadth of educational experience. It could be that if the two main subjects were in science, two of the others should be in a complementary area."

Sir Ron's interim report also suggests that common skills such as communication, numeracy and information technology might also be required for A-level. He said all sixth formers might follow the same course for the first two terms.

The report looks at ways of challenging the brightest pupils while catering for those who find A-level too hard. Sir Ron is also proposing that bright pupils should be able to take units of university courses and the return of Special Level papers to recognise outstanding achievement.

Sir Ron said he was concerned that nearly a third of those on A-level courses failed to gain two passes and one in five dropped out. He is considering an intermediate exam covering the first year of study for those who find A-level too difficult.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said it was important to have a framework for qualifications for 16- to 19- year-olds. "It is vital the qualifications they receive are not just of a high quality but also prepare them to compete in the increasingly tough global market."

Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, said: "The Tories have resisted reform of A-levels for 16 years but now the consensus for reform has become so strong that a U-turn is on the cards." Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "A portfolio approach which allows students to combine academic and vocational courses gives Britain the best chance of producing the well qualified, scientifically literate workforce of the future."

n Mrs Shephard said yesterday that she wanted more 14-year-olds to have work-based experience. She said she hoped to foster co-operation between schools and business without turning 14-year-olds out into the workplace as cheap labour.

Hamish McRae, page 15