In summer 2002, Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs) will allow the top one per cent of A-level students to gain additional merits or distinctions in 16 subjects, including physics, chemistry, geography, history, French, Latin, Maths, Welsh and English.
The new awards are being developed in response to the government's Excellence in Cities report and are intended to test pupils against standards comparable to the highest levels found in other countries.
Unlike special papers, the AEAs will be based on current syllabus content.
They will challenge pupils to apply fundamental principles in the critical analysis of new situations, rather than simply demonstrate a broader knowledge.
By staying within syllabus specifications, AEAs should not require any additional teaching and it is hoped that they will allow a wider access to the award.
By differentiating between pupils achieving Advanced level grade A, the government suggested that the new awards will remove the necessity for some universities to set their own entrance examinations.
Specifications for the AEA subjects are currently available through the QCA websit.
Different subjects will place varying demands on the students, but in physics, for example, specifications require them to undertake a three-hour exam of five to eight compulsory questions covering the full subject range.
Questions will include: an analysis requiring comprehension of information from an unfamiliar field; problem solving which draws on the application of principles from different areas of physics; and the estimation of outcomes from limited data.
While the chemistry AEA will also be assessed by a three-hour examination, there will be some choice of questions available to entrants.
The QCA is concerned that maintained schools and colleges are less likely to enter candidates for the awards, than those of the independent sector.
The DfEE and AQA are working together to address these issues in time for the national launch of the awards.
Universities are showing a great interest in AEAs, although they remain cautious about including the new standards in their entry requirements.
Ultimately, Advanced Extension Awards will stand or fall on the "currency" that they hold when students are applying for places in higher education.
www.qca.org.uknqframeworkaea.asp stand J40