Confront the forces of conservatism and abandon this A-level system

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The publication today of the first AS-level examination results marks a small step forward for this country's education system. But it could and should have been a great leap into a better-educated future.

The publication today of the first AS-level examination results marks a small step forward for this country's education system. But it could and should have been a great leap into a better-educated future.

At best, the AS-level is a halfway house between traditional A-levels and the baccalaureate system which has been successfully adopted by many of our European competitors. It is unfortunate that fears of a backlash from traditionalists – who will brook no alteration of A-levels, which they see as the "gold standard" of the education system – prompted the Government to soft-pedal on reforming the examination system. It is the kind of timidity New Labour has demonstrated too often, as seen with the House of Lords reform, or devolution. Ministers' instincts are right but their nerve fails them, seemingly too scared to confront the forces of conservatism. As a result, we are left pining for the world-class education system the Prime Minister promised us.

All is not lost, though. Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, is committed to re-examining the curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds. One of the first issues she must tackle is how to pave the way for the adoption of a UK baccalaureate system to replace the present A-level/AS-level mix. Meanwhile, caught up in the middle of this muddle are today's students, while the education system has to put up with uncertainty as it moves forward at a snail's pace towards the examinations system the country needs.

That said, it is unarguably the case that the youngsters who have been the "guinea pigs" for the new AS-level examination are receiving a much broader education than their predecessors. At least many of them are studying four or five AS-levels in the first year of the sixth form rather than, at the age of 16, narrowing their curriculum down to just three subjects immediately after finishing their GCSEs. It is also encouraging to note that modern foreign languages, along with science, has seen an increase in take-up with the introduction of AS-levels. For far too long we have deservedly had the tag of "languages dunce of Europe" because too few of our youngsters opt to study a modern foreign language, while we continue to rely on our competitors' knowledge of English whenever we visit a foreign country.

This year's results, both AS-levels and A-levels, also place the gender gap between the performance of boys and girls sharply into focus again. The AS-level results show the gap between the two sexes is far wider than at A-level, which has been put down to the examination being more girl-friendly as a result of the increasing emphasis on a modular approach instead of end-of-term exams.

Let us be clear. It is not a problem that girls' performance is improving. It is a problem that the performance of boys seems to remain static. (Research has shown that, if you look at the 19 successive years of improvements in the A-level pass rate, it is almost all down to an improvement in girls' performance. The performance of boys in many subjects is the same as it was two decades ago.)

The Government has set up a three-year research project to look at those schools that have managed to improve the performance of their male students in order to see if an individual school's good practice can be spread to the rest of the education system. It is also transferring the literacy and numeracy strategies that have seen some success into the first few years of secondary schooling in an attempt to retain the interest of those pupils, all too often boys, who become switched off from education well before they reach school-leaving age.

There is no time to lose, however. It is the boys who are not stimulated in the classroom and are dropping out of the education system or playing truant who are also most likely to add to the juvenile crime, drug and violence statistics in years to come. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the nation's future is at stake.