Welsh baccalaureate students could start working towards the qualification at age 14, in a bid to reduce the numbers dropping out of the current pilot programme.
Just over a third of Wales's first bac cohort gained the advanced diploma this summer, according to figures released yesterday.
Of the 670 students expected to study the bac when it was launched two years ago, only 499 were registered for the qualification in February 2005 - of whom 305 completed the programme and 233 collected the award.
Plaid Cymru labelled the drop-out rate an "abject failure" and called for an urgent reassessment of the pilot scheme. But the head of a pilot school said the qualification was the way forward and warned against diluting standards.
The pass rate for those completing their bac studies was 76.6 per cent - well below the 96.8 per cent for A-level entries in Wales. Both A-level passes and awards of A grades were higher in Wales than in the UK as a whole (see page 2).
The bac was launched two years ago in 16 schools and colleges to broaden the post-16 curriculum. Students follow a "core" programme of key skills, an individual research project, work experience, community service, and study of Wales and the world.
In addition, they take A-levels, BTECs or other vocational courses as "options". Successful candidates score the equivalent of an A-grade A-level (120 points) when it comes to university admission, in addition to any points gained from their options.
Some schools and colleges say students dropped out because universities were not recognising the qualification, although a TES Cymru survey (May 27) suggested the vast majority are.
A survey by the WJEC, the Welsh exam board, of 195 bac students who failed to complete their studies shows they struggled with the additional work involved.
A fifth referred to the overall demands of the course, 21 per cent did not complete the key skills requirements, and 24 per cent could not finish their individual investigation on time. Only 13 per cent dropped the bac to concentrate on A-levels.
Gareth Pierce, the WJEC's chief executive, said extending the bac format to the 14-19 age range would give students more time to satisfy some of its requirements before starting post-16 studies.
Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres comprehensive, Penarth - where the bac has helped to double A-level A grades - supported starting at 14, but warned against watering down the qualification.
He added: "This exam is the way forward. When I talk to employers it's what they want. Pupils are more confident, they give PowerPoint presentations as if they are in the world of work, and they all write more analytical essays and investigations."
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, also agreed, saying: "Some key skills qualifications could be gained post-14 rather than requiring the whole thing to be done between 16 and 19.
We hope this will be considered."
An Assembly government spokesperson said the bac was never intended to be easy, but that lessons would be learned from the pilot. Students who had completed only some of the required key skills qualifications would still have gained valuable experience.
Shadow education minister Janet Ryder said the drop-out rate was worrying, given the extra resources and support in the pilot.
News 2, LEADER14