After dominating teenagers' lives for half a century, A-levels may be folded into a baccalaureate-style diploma. What are the implications?
Proposals for a baccalaureate-style diploma could herald the most radical change in the qualifications system for 50 years. July's progress report from the Government-appointed Working Group on 14-19 Reform suggests a framework of diplomas embracing vocational and academic courses.
Each of the four levels of each diploma would require some form of dissertation or project. Task force chairman Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, called the chance to reform 14-to-19 qualifications "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce change that puts the learner's interests first".
The latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, showing that Britain was slipping behind other industrialised nations in the proportion of young people staying on at school beyond 16, will add weight to Mr Tomlinson's arguments.
The diploma aims to improve the credibility of vocational qualifications by bringing them under the same umbrella as their academic counterparts.
Maths, English, computing science and teamwork would be compulsory and there would be supplementary courses in critical thinking. Courses for the most academic students would be harder than A-level.
His final report is expected next summer. Meanwhile, he says, the proposals are intended to provide opportunities to:
* Plan coherent curriculum pathways for all students;
* Have assessment which supports the curriculum and learning; and
* Have qualifications providing a more complete picture of students'
The proposals have received a mixed response from employers and universities. The Confederation of British Industry, for example, is unimpressed by the diploma's proposed inclusion of key skills and achievement in areas like sport and drama. The organisation says employers will not be interested in this sort of information about young people with A-levels, since they mostly go on to university.
"We know that someone with a Grade A at English A-level may not be articulate, but we can find this out for ourselves at an interview," explains CBI spokeswoman Margaret Murray. "We are recruiting whole people, not a range of criteria."
She believes that any changes to the qualifications system should have a different emphasis: "The main priority should be to get rid of the long tail of underachievement - the young people who leave school with no qualifications and the 50 per cent who fail to achieve a C or above in GCSE maths."
Employers are also keen that A-level standards should be seen to be maintained: they do not want a repeat of last year's grading fiasco.
Employers find A-level grades relevant, even when they select graduates. A top law firm, for instance, might want to see four A grades at A-level, as well as a first-class degree.
While most employers regard A-levels as general evidence of intellectual ability and application, others will use them as confirmation of specialist knowledge. In science and engineering, for example, A-level maths will tell employers that applicants can cope with the algebra they will need in the job.
Some universities are also unhappy about replacing A-levels with a baccalaureate-style system. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, goes so far as to say: "It's a disastrous idea. It's a mistake to think that you can win status for vocational studies by wrapping them round with academic qualifications."
Professor Smithers says that information about key skills and performances in school plays will not give an admissions tutor for physics a clear idea of a student's suitability for a degree course. He thinks the grading system will be confusing and believes the suggested system, in which students would have to pass all elements of the course to earn a diploma, is unfair.
"The main reason why the Higher School Certificate was replaced by A-levels in the 1950s was because pupils who only passed bits of it received no qualification at all," he says.
A-levels, he argues, are still a good indication of whether someone is fitted for a degree course. Admissions tutors still rely heavily on predicted A-level grades, using AS grades to judge their accuracy. A-level courses also provide the essential blocks of knowledge for universities to build on. As a result, he says, the UK has a highly successful, streamlined university system, turning out graduates in three or four years, compared with six or seven in many other countries.
Many universities do not seem particularly interested in the breadth of study outlined in the planned diploma: the Secondary Heads Association has already criticised admissions tutors for failing to give credit to applicants with contrasting AS subjects.
But admissions tutors at some universities will accept AS-levels in lieu of an A-level. Warwick will consider applicants with two A-levels and three AS-levels , for instance, and likes candidates to offer three A-levels and one AS-level. Sheffield considers applicants with two A levels and 2 AS-levels.
A-level grades still dominate the selection process at his university, but Mike Brown, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Sheffield, says that candidates who can demonstrate a practical interest in engineering, such as a gap year in industry, will have the edge.
Unlike Professor Smithers, Professor Brown is in favour of the diploma's proposed transcript of pupils' academic and extra-curricular experiences:
"Anything which tells us more about applicants is helpful in selection, as it makes it easier to assess qualities like motivation and determination, essential if students are to stay the course."
The report is out to consultation until 16 October. Visit: www.14-19reform.gov.uk