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New A-levels put on hold

The massive programme of sixth-form changes engineered by Sir Ron Dearing is almost certain to be put on hold by the government.

A comprehensive series of re-written A-levels and new AS-levels is about to be sent to schools by the government's curriculum quango.

But ministers are poised to call for another look at the whole 14-19 curriculum amid arguments about how the existing schemes fit with the Labour government's manifesto promises for a broader range of sixth-form studies.

Official sources suggest that this is the government's last chance to affect the comprehensive changes set out in last summer's Dearing report.

There have been many calls for a delay, including one this week from Professor Alison Wolf of London University's Institute of Education (see above).

Introducing a major new report which highlighted the inadequacies of the GNVQ, she said that the qualification needs a government re-think.

Individual subject groups and exam boards will also be pleased by news of a delay. They have been alarmed the pace of change. The central or core components of some major A-levels such as maths have been re-written at great speed - in a matter of days in one or two cases.

The Dearing report gathered A-levels and vocational qualifications into one structure; broke them up into smaller chunks to allow students a greater subject breadth; and introduced plans for overarching qualifications, such as a National Diploma and a National Certificate.

There were also controversial recommendations for tightening up A-levels and GNVQs and reducing the number of exam boards so that comparisons will become simpler.

Before the election, Labour had promised to introduce broader A-levels. It must now decide whether these are compatible with Sir Ron Dearing's plans. The new AS-level can be taken in one year and might produce a broader range of studies.

At the same time Dearing suggested that students taking subjects in four out of five basic study areas should be awarded a National Diploma. This is the closest he came to recommending a baccalaureate, which had been ruled out by the last government.

Dearing's plans might not be acceptable to some Labour ministers. Baroness Blackstone, for one, is thought to favour a more radical switch to baccalaureate studies.

However, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is believed to feel cautious about any plans to ditch the A-level system.

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