'A-levels are here to stay'

Ministers back 'gold standard' in week of record exam results. Ben Russell reports.

The Government ruled out a radical reform of sixth-form education this week, as ministers declared that A-levels are here to stay.

Labour's one-year moratorium on exam reform will produce no new proposals for action. The Government will only look at options already examined by the Tories.

Ministers voiced their backing for the A-level "gold standard" as this week's results showed yet another record entry and another record pass rate - up 1.3 per cent on last year.

A spokesman from the Department for Education and Employment told The TES: "A-levels are here to stay. We will consider how A-levels could be broadened. But suggestions of their demise are extremely wide of the mark."

Education minister Baroness Blackstone praised the A-level results, saying "young people will not thank us for calling their achievements into question".

And she provided more cheer for teenagers who received their results yesterday, announcing a spectacular 11th-hour climbdown over the so-called "gap trap".

She said students holding a deferred place for university entry next year would be exempt from fees and would get a grant, regardless of whether they carry out voluntary work. Ministers had previously rejected any suggestion that there might be a scramble for places to pre-empt the introduction of tuition fees in October 1998.

Questions remained, however, about thousands of students qualified for university places but not covered by the exemption who may still rush to seek a free university or college place this year.

Baroness Blackstone said the Government was committed to broadening A-levels to include key skills like communications and information technology.

Plans to reform A-levels and their GNVQ equivalent were put on hold earlier this year while the Government considered the idea of a broad-based British baccalaureate.

Ministers are thought to be split on the question with Education Secretary David Blunkett and his minister Stephen Byers preferring to keep the tried-and-trusted A-level format. Lady Blackstone is known to back a multi-subject baccalaureate.

But it emerged this week that the Government's consultation will stop at ideas for umbrella qualifications - crucially retaining A-levels - which were floated by Sir Ron more than 18 months ago. A decision about the future of the system is due in February.

Ministers have signalled their desire to move towards a broadly-based qualification for 18-year-olds, provoking speculation that a baccalaureate was on the cards.

Sir Ron proposed a National Certificate, awarded to people who passed a certain number of qualifications at A-level standard. A National Diploma would reward those who gained awards in a specified range of subjects.

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