GOVERNMENT moves to reform A-levels are unpopular with employers who believe plans to broaden studies are misguided, according to new research.
The study shows that despite giving approval in principle, employers actually recruit school-leavers and graduates with narrow expertise for their own companies.
Prompted by Sir Ron Dearing's findings in 1996 and pressure from industry for more broadly educated school-leavers, the Government announced plans last year for a five-subject AS-level curriculum with a key skills element to be studied in the first year of sixth forms.
But the research, by the London School of Economics centre for economic performance, suggests that "broader is not necessarily better" and that tinkering with the "gold standard" of A-levels will do nothing for pupils' employability or educational prospects.
"Our research suggests that the current A-level system may have more going for it than its detractors would have us believe," said Anna Vignoles of the CEP, co-author of the report.
Researchers compared the A-level choices and earnings of people in England -where only 27 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds took a mixture of science and non-science subjects - with Scotland, where the figure was 73 per cent.
"Scottish students appear to earn no more than their English counterparts as a result of their greater curriculum breadth.
"The evidence clearly indicates that firms are not currently interested in hiring and paying for individuals who have a broader educational background."
Ken Spours, of the post-16 education centre at the University of London's Institute of Education, whose proposals for a new A-level system will go to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said he was not surprised that businesses displayed a certain amount of contradictory attitudes.
"Individual employers behave differently from employers as a whole. They have an idea of the optimum skill mix for the population as a whole but then say don't ask me to spread that to my own recruitment practices."
A baccalaureate-style qualification might help to overcome the current "elective approach" where "if you have difficulty with a subject you drop it", he said, although the early signs were that not many schools would be interested in piloting the system.
The CEP research also shows that specialisation seemed to help students get a place at university and cope with the demands of a single-subject degree course.
"We found that pupils who study a more specialised A-level curriculum are more likely to get a degree, either because they are more likely to apply and get accepted into higher education or because they they are more likely to succeed once they get there," Dr Vignoles said.
For the idea of a more wide-ranging A-level system to work, either university degree courses should be more broad-based or should be extended to four years. "The reforms as proposed by the Government at the moment do neither of those things."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said he was unconvinced by the Government's emphasis on key skills. "I am all in favour of people doing more subjects at A-level but I can't see where key skills come into that at all. Employers are looking for someone who is pretty broadly educated and can handle situations." But, he added, there was debate over which was the best way to hone intelligence and adaptability and problem-solving.
A-LEVEL SPECIALISATION BY SUBJECT
17 and 18-year-olds in schools and FE colleges in England who achieved three or more A-levels
Female Male Total
% % %
Science and maths only 11 25 18
Social science subjects only 3 6 4
Arts subjects only 10 3 7
Social science and arts only 39 23 32
Non-specialised - science
and non-science 37 43 40
Source: DFEE Statistics of Education 1997