Friday, March 19, 1999 Published at 11:45 GMT
A level reform aims to broaden choice
The reforms aim to stop pupils specialising too early
Pupils will be encouraged to study a wider range of subjects in a reform of the A level system announced by the government.
The changes to the A level system have been prompted by concerns that pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are specialising too early.
The Education Minister, Baroness Blackstone, described the package of reforms as an "important element of our programme of extending choice and raising standards for young people."
She said: "I do not believe that our youngsters are any less capable than those in other countries, and our reforms will ensure they are stretched to achieve their full potential."
Under the new system, pupils will be able to study for five Advanced Subsidiary (AS) qualifications in the first year. This will allow students to continue combining arts and sciences beyond GCSEs.
There will also be a new qualification in "key skills" - information technology, numeracy and communications.
And upgraded work-related General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) will be introduced, including a six-unit Advanced GNVQ equivalent to a single A level and graded on the same A-E scale.
Ministers have also moved to meet concerns over the growth of "modular" A-levels, which are examined in units instead of one final exam. Critics argue that these dilute academic standards.
At the same time, tough new papers are due to be introduced in some subjects, replacing the old S level papers. These are designed to give the most able students the chance to demonstrate knowledge in depth of the A level syllabus, and ministers expect that they will become required qualifications for entry to the country's top universities.
But the Shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, criticised the government's handling of the reforms. "The government has been sitting on this review of A levels for far too long and teachers have been let down by their dithering," he said.
"There is now precious little time for exam boards and schools to prepare for very significant changes as early as next year."
And the General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, David Hart, said the government had not gone far enough.
"Unfounded fears of being accused of diluting standards clearly dominates the government's post-16 agenda."
Research published last month suggested that employers might not be convinced about the advantage of a broader curriculum than the current A levels.
The Centre for Economic Performance, based at the London School of Economics, found that employers still favoured young people with a narrow range of traditional A levels - such as three sciences or three arts subjects.
This was despite calls from employers' organisations for a broader, European-style curriculum instead of the current A levels.
However, there have already been moves from some schools, particularly independent schools, to move towards a baccalaureate system in which sixth formers study a wider range of subjects.
This week, Sevenoaks School in Kent announced that it would be abandoning A levels in favour of the International Baccalaurate.