The government is refusing to say whether it will heed calls to allow state secondary schools in England the same freedom to take international A levels as their private school counterparts.
Ministers have made a virtue of offering maintained schools the chance to use international versions of the GCSE, and have criticised the previous administration for not doing the same. But as the government prepares to reform domestic A levels, it appears reluctant to give state schools similar autonomy over post-16 exams, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.
TES revealed last week that many elite private schools are planning to avoid the controversial A-level changes in England by opting for international versions of the qualification.
Now headteachers' unions say that state schools will want to adopt the same tactic ahead of the 2015 reforms, which will lead to domestic A levels being assessed by end-of-course exams, and are calling on ministers to pave the way.
Kathy James, director of policy at the NAHT union, said: "Some of our members definitely will want to go for the international A level because there is quite a lot of concern about the universal return of the linear (end-of-course exam) model."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "If independent schools are allowed to do things then, in the spirit of government policy saying that it believes in (school) autonomy, it should allow maintained schools to do the same."
Michael Gove made almost exactly the same point in March 2010, when he announced that if the Conservative Party came to power it would widen access to IGCSEs for state schools. As education secretary he has fulfilled the pledge, allowing state schools to take seven previously unavailable IGCSEs including English, mathematics and science. The freedom has been embraced and this year around 10 per cent of the potential UK GCSE cohort were entered for an IGCSE in English.
Mr Gove began the A-level reform process last year by suggesting that the government would take a laissez-faire approach (see panel, left). That approach is now being tested, with many state secondaries keen to dodge the reforms that will mean AS levels no longer count towards final A-level grades.
But the Department for Education (DfE) refused to comment on whether it would clear the way for state schools to take international A levels. Despite repeated requests, a spokesperson would provide only a statement promoting the government's reformed A levels, to be taught from 2015.
"It is not acceptable for the government not to address this question," Ms James said. "That is not good enough. It has got to be clear about whether the answer is yes or no." A no "would be hypocritical", she added. "If they are going to go down that route they had better have a good argument as to why."
Mr Lightman said: "A levels are in a very stable state at the moment and school leaders are continuing to ask the question `why on earth do we need to reform it?' They remain very concerned indeed about the decoupling of AS level and very strongly opposed to that. So if those things were to go ahead then I wouldn't be at all surprised if they would begin to investigate alternative options, as they have with IGCSE."
A DfE spokesperson said: "We are ensuring that A levels match the world's best and prepare children for work and higher education. Linear A levels will end the constant treadmill of exams and ensure pupils develop a real understanding of a subject."
TAKING A STEP BACK?
Michael Gove began his A-level reform process in March 2012 by stating that "the government must take a step back".
"I don't envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications," the education secretary wrote in a letter to exams watchdog Ofqual.
"The examination system is already becoming more diverse and will continue to diversify as people study what is right for them," he added. "I do not believe government should seek to limit that diversity."