THE GOVERNMENT's reform of post-16 education could lead to a "dumbing-down" of A-levels, according to a leading examiner.
Ministers are braced for a barrage of accusations that they have diluted the A-level "gold standard" as they announce plans today to broaden sixth-form study.
Professor Eric Evans, who is writing A-levels to be taken in 2000, claims humanities exams are certain to be less demanding thanks to changes which encourage sixth-formers to study up to five subjects instead of three, the current norm.
Independent schools have threatened to drop A-levels in favour of the International Baccalaureate if the new modular exam leads to a fall in standards. This week Sevenoaks School in Kent, announced it is to phase out the A-level in favour of the IB, "a known yardstick of excellence," from next year.
From September 2000 the Government wants sixth-formers to study a range of subjects in their first year, allowing them to mix-and-match vocational and academic qualifications.
All A-levels will be split into two equal parts with the first year re-formulated as an "advanced supplementary" exam. Students will then decide how many subjects to continue in the second year.
Professor Evans, chair of social history at Lancaster University, told the TES: "There is no way that half of the existing A-level plus half set at a lower level can be the same standard that we have now."
Maths and the sciences might be open to modular assessment, he said, but arts standards would fall.
"History, English and other humanities are slow-burn subjects. Children get better with experience and maturity," he said.
But Dr Ron McLone, this year's Convenor of the Joint Forum for GCSE and GCE, said marking schemes, not questions, determined standards and could be adjusted to match archive papers.
He said: "I am certain that these concerns about falling standards are completely unfounded."
Two new subjects, critical thinking and public understanding of science, will be introduced at AS-level specifically to broaden students' horizons.
Meanwhile, the General National Vocational Qualification has been brought into line with A-level and repackaged into six and three-unit awards, graded A to E.
The new A-level will consist of six modules with exams that can be sat either throughout the two years or taken together at the end of the course.
The first three units make up the AS-level and are to be set at a standard between GCSE and A-level. Candidates who continue their studies for a second year will study three more demanding modules, called A2 units, in each subject.
Voluntary, "key skill" qualifications will be intrduced to assess information technology, communication and numeracy skills, while new-look S-levels will only examine topics common to all A-level syllabuses in any given subject to encourage entries.
Headteachers accused ministers of political cowardice in rejecting more radical change. They want a new qualifications framework to break down the divide between the academic and vocational.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"We need a coherent framework for 14 to 19-year-olds. Unfortunately ministers feel there are few votes to be won by reforming the system, but many to be lost by making changes to A-levels.
"This will only work if universities will credit students who have broadened their studies. If they do not, students will have no incentive to do more than three subjects."
David Hart of the NAHT said: "The Government needs to put its weight firmly behind broadening the curriculum. This is more evidence of Government timidity."