The overhaul of post-16 study will see an increase in the number of sixth-formers who begin to study four subjects but many will ditch courses unless there are clear incentives for them to continue, said Dr Ken Spours of London University's Institute of Education.
Dr Spours is involved in a
Nuffield Foundation-sponsored project, with Dr Ann Hodgson and Chris Savory, which is researching how schools and colleges react to the Government reforms over the next two years.
Preliminary findings indicate that most sixth-formers will take four subjects plus general studies. But only three in five are expected to begin working towards a key skills qualification in September and fewer than one in five will complete it by 2002, Dr Spours warned.
The new "stand-alone" key skills qualification will assess students' use of number, communication and IT and will be available for A-level, NVQ and GNVQ candidates from September.
"We are very worried about key skills - will they be a failure in their current form? In interviews, practitioners are telling us they see it as "too much hassle with too little currency", Dr Spours said.
Universities should be rewarded with extra funding if they favour candidates with a broader range of advanced level qualifications, he added.
Ministers must also give a clear signal that they plan to launch an overarching baccalaureate-type award.
"The Goverment is simply keeping its fingers crossed and seeing what happens. This is likely to produce a very mixed and confusing picture," said Dr Spours.
He said: "On the positive side it looks as if A-level and general national vocational qualification students will be studying more subjects from September 2000, possibly four in the first year and three in the second year. More-over, there will be many examples of innovative practice from schools and colleges.
"On the other hand, however, some institutions might not change their offer and the response so far from higher education has been negative and confused."
He questioned the seriousness of Government intentions for A-level reform saying that it depended on institutions voluntarily changing their practices.
He said: "Without clear incentives and a vision of future developments it is quite possible that the reforms may enjoy only partial success."
A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority spokeswoman said: "Most schools and colleges we talk to say that they welcome the flexibility of the new arrangements. They want both to provide broader study programmes and to increase the achievement of their students. They want to give them richer courses which open up future options. The positive response is echoed by higher education institutions and employers who confirm that they value depth with breadth."
The first Project paper, "Qualifying for Success: Towards a Framework of Understanding", written by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, will be available next month from the Lifelong Learning Group at the Institute of Education.