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Taskforce is first step to an English bac

Mike Tomlinson, who identified problems with A-levels, may shape their replacement. Julie Henry and Warwick Mansell report

A GOVERNMENT taskforce will be set up to transform the current GCSE and A-level system into a baccalaureate-style award at 18. Universities and employers will have a central place on the new group to ensure its proposals get their support.

Mike Tomlinson, head of the recent inquiry into A-level standards, is tipped to chair the taskforce, due to be announced next week.

The International Baccalaureate gives a single award to students for studying up to six subjects chosen from different areas of the curriculum. The taskforce will investigate how a similar, overarching qualification - with vocational and academic elements - might cut drop-out rates and cure the "British disease" of undervaluing work-related learning.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I welcome any taskforce that will think seriously about an international baccalaureate-type system and involve universities and employers, without whom any major changes in 14 to 19 would be a dead duck."

The establishment of a taskforce is a recognition by ministers that many proposals in the Government's 14 to 19 Green Paper, such as the "matriculation diploma", were flawed. Heads and teacher organisations criticised the original plans for adding little to the current system and freezing out low achievers.

However, some of the main themes of the Green Paper survive in the plans ministers will unveil next week.

A major theme is to let youngsters take exams when they are ready rather than at a pre-determined age. So pupils will be given the chance to spend three years, rather than two, studying for GCSEs, with the less academic deferring some until they are 17 in an attempt to boost achievement and staying-on rates.

More academic pupils would take GCSEs early, or skip them altogether and go straight to AS-levels.

Foreign languages and design and technology will be made optional at 14 giving some the chance to do job-related courses at college rather than traditional academic subjects. Work placements might count towards any final qualifications.

But the proposal to create a "distinction" grade at A-level for the brightest sixth-formers has been dropped, in order to give the new world class tests for bright 18-year-olds a chance to prove their worth.

Whether pupils take vocational or academic routes, the idea is that all will aim for some form of overarching qualification like the international bac.

14-19 PLANS

* Compulsory curriculum to be made more flexible and limited to 60 per cent of timetable

* More teenagers to study in colleges to prepare them for modern apprenticeships.

* Work experience to ensure pupils get skills that are relevant to future careers

* Teachers to help pupils write individual plans, identifying long-term goals at 14

* "Pathfinder" local education authorities, schools and colleges to pilot various 14-19 learning models. Ofsted to assess whether programmes meet pupils' needs

* GCSE and A-level performance leagues tables to be revamped

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