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Kelly may put Bac on track

A-levels could be replaced with a diploma by 2008 after all, says the Education Secretary. Warwick Mansell and Graeme Paton report

The long-term replacement of A-levels with a new diploma exam appears to be back on the agenda after Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said this week that ministers would revisit the issue within three years.

In an interview with the Press Association, Ms Kelly said a "general diploma" would be reconsidered in 2008, raising the prospect that the central proposal of the two-year Tomlinson inquiry could be revived.

The statement prompted a claim that the Government had been dishonest with the electorate after going into the election saying that A-levels were here to stay.

But civil servants said the statement did not contradict the Government's white paper proposals in February.

The statement came as Britain's biggest examining board warned that ministers are risking a repeat of 2002's A-level re-grading scandal because of plans to introduce more difficult questions into the exam to stretch the brightest students.

The AQA board said the proposals, set out in the white paper, could be botched unless ministers were clear about whether they want the A-level to be more demanding or to remain at the same level of difficulty.

In the interview, Ms Kelly said the prospect of a general diploma had been set out in the 14-19 white paper in response to Tomlinson.

She said: "I said that in 2008 we would review how the system was operating and we would look particularly at whether we could achieve a consensus with employers and higher education about whether there should be a general diploma."

In fact, the white paper made no mention of introducing a general diploma to replace A-levels.

It included three paragraphs promising a review of whether A-levels are providing sufficient breadth to stretch brighter students, but did not describe the proposed baccalaureate-style qualification as a general diploma.

The Government faced widespread criticism from the education world after the white paper proposed a new set of vocational diplomas to exist alongside GCSEs and A-levels. Critics said this would perpetuate vocational courses as second-class qualifications.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education pressure group, said: "It seems grossly dishonest to give the impression before the election that A-levels were here to stay and then, having been re-elected, they are quite happy to move towards an all-round diploma."

But supporters of the Tomlinson diploma plans were happier. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It is helpful that the Government is at least concentrating its mind on what to do in 2008."

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said that the new diploma should be trialled immediately.

Ministers have been gradually toning down their rejection of the Tomlinson proposals in recent months. Labour's manifesto gave more prominence to the promise to review A-levels in 2008 than the white paper did, and Prime Minister Tony Blair said during the election campaign that A-levels were "too narrow".

Churches have criticised the Government's 14-19 agenda, saying that it would create a two-tier education system in which the role of faith would be marginalised.

In a joint statement, the Anglican, Methodist and Free Church educational bodies said pupils' legal rights to religious education and daily acts of collective worship would be lost if they spent an increasing amount of time pursuing vocational courses outside school.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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