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Friday, September 18, 1998 Published at 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK


Conservatives attack threat to A-levels

A-levels: out of date or well-respected qualifications?

An education minister's call for A-levels to be reformed have been attacked by the Conservatives as a move that would "inevitably lead to a lowering of standards".

The Higher Education Minister, Baroness Blackstone, said she believed that the A-level system should be replaced by a broader, European-style curriculum in sixth form.

The present system of pupils studying three or four A-levels was "designed for a world which no longer exists", she told a conference of university vice-chancellors.

But the scrapping of A-levels would mean the replacement of a "well-respected qualification" with a "mish-mash which lacks credibility," said Conservative education spokesman, David Willetts.

"Tessa Blackstone has always wanted to get rid of A-levels and her speech yesterday was another step in her campaign," said Mr Willetts.

[ image: Conservative education spokesman David Willetts wants to protect A-levels]
Conservative education spokesman David Willetts wants to protect A-levels
Baroness Blackstone called for the end of students over-specialising in sixth form and the adoption of a more flexible curriculum for the pre-university years.

"It is a fact that young people in England and Wales typically follow a narrower programme of study at advanced level and are taught for less time than young people in other European countries. There is no reason why this should be so," said Baroness Blackstone.

The narrow range of subjects studied by 16-year-olds, the minister said, "has bedevilled the English and Welsh education systems for too long".

The present system, the minister argued, is a relic of an education system in which only a small percentage of pupils went on to university.

A-levels were designed, she said, for "a world in which higher education was the preserve of a highly-specialised élite.

"We now have a third of young people entering higher education and the jobs they will be applying for will demand a far wider-range of skills than even 10 years ago."

As a step towards a broadening of the path towards university, the minister said that the government had revised the Advanced-Subsidiary (AS-level) qualification, so that students could take a wider range of subjects in the first year before concentrating in the second year on three specialist, full A-levels.

Baroness Blackstone also announced plans to upgrade the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ), with the aim of "encouraging more young people either into vocational degree courses or direct into employment".

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