Sir Ron Dearing's plans for A-level high flyers appear to be foundering. The examination boards say there is no market for S-level special papers, or for the new, philosophically-based general studies course planned by the Government's curriculum quango.
Extended coursework, long criticised by Conservative ministers, could be back in fashion for the brightest sixth formers as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority looks at alternatives to the unpopular special papers.
At the same time the A-level boards are resisting what they term "elitist" attempts to smuggle philosophical thinking into the popular general studies A-level.
Demand for the S-level exam has been falling, even though it was promoted in Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications last summer. At the Manchester-based Northern Board, entries have fallen to around 1,000 a year. Few universities take account of S-levels, which have no official points score.
Now the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is considering special coursework or "research" options instead. A SCAA spokeswoman said: "Many respondents have identified the need to provide for high achievers. Hence, we are asking boards to continue with them. We're also exploring other avenues by which it might be done, including the use of extended projects."
Heather James, assistant chief executive at the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, said that schools will not take S-levels seriously unless universities ask them to. Nor, she said, can they afford to devote their most talented teachers to just two or three pupils at a time. "If SCAA is serious about this," she said, "it should promote schemes involving a number of schools."
Ms James was also sceptical about SCAA's attempt to introduce the "theory of knowledge" into A-level general studies - again at the request of Sir Ron. She said there is no demand from schools, pupils or teachers for this sort of exam - which would require extra teaching - and no commercial market.
The NEAB dominates general studies with 45,000 entries a year. Its course is famed for its mixture of essays, whacky diagrams, and lists of multiple choice general knowledge questions.
Popular or not, the qualification fails to impress many university admissions tutors who do not count it towards university entrance.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has told the exam boards that it wants something quite different. New regulations mean that any general studies course must help students "develop a greater awareness of human knowledge, understanding and behaviour; understand objectivity, neutrality and bias; think critically, logically and constructively about significant problems; and develop a critical awareness and understanding of perennial and contemporary issues plus awareness of their historical and contemporary contexts."
"Critical thinking is already covered in philosophy exams," said George Turnbull from the Associated Examining Board. "The approach in general studies is quite different."