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Quango to cut number of A-levels by half

The number of A-level syllabuses will be cut by 45 per cent under new government rules imposed through its exams quango, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

As things stand there are 350 A-level and AS-level syllabuses on the market, say the exam boards. By the year 2000, however, this will have dropped to 190 as SCAA tries to impose greater standardisation on the system.

This clear-out is intended to prevent grade inflation - the devaluing of standards as boards compete for students' custom by offering easier pass marks.

The Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard has also demanded a reduction in the number of examination boards.

The controversial Standards over Time report, published by SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education, found no hard evidence that A-level standards had declined over the past 25 years. But it concluded that there was no mechanism for making such a comparison, and no controls in place to prevent a decline.

The reduction in syllabuses is also a response to commercial pressure. The new system, complete with one-year AS courses and stage-by-stage modular options, will be more expensive to examine, and the boards would, inevitably, have rationalised their operation. A similar reduction has already happened at GCSE.

According to Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-18 qualifications, there are 250 syllabuses for A-levels in English, maths and science (although this total is disputed by the boards who say it counts every possible permutation of papers as a separate course).

Under new rules published by SCAA and recently approved by the Government, each exam board will only be allowed to offer one syllabus for each subject - commanding 15,000 entrants or more - plus one more if it is significantly different in character. For minor subjects, SCAA wants only three syllabuses across the country.

On the basis of its own survey, the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board said that the total number of syllabuses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will fall from 350 to under 200.

The figures, however, are complicated as some analysts count different styles of examination as separate syllabuses. According to the Associated Examining Board, there are as many as 500 different A-level and AS-level options available.

The AEB will slim down its syllabuses from 60 to 30. The Northern Examination and Assessment Board will reduce its 55 courses to 15, and cut 26 shared courses. Edexcel (combining BTEC and the University of London) will have only 30 A-levels, down from 55, while the giant Cambridge board will chop its courses from 170 to 55.

Last month, two of the boards, the AEB and the NEAB, announced that they would be entering a partnership, along with the City and Guilds vocational Board. There are currently four A-level boards in England, plus the Welsh and Northern Ireland boards. But Mrs Shephard wants to reduce the number of boards. It is generally believed that a total of three would be acceptable to SCAA.

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