A-levels should be scrapped in favour of a "broader, richer" baccalaureate-style system if students are to be better prepared for life after school, the Department for Education's former permanent secretary is expected to say today.
Sir David Bell, who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, is to brand the current A-level system "out of date" and call for it to be replaced with one offering core specialist subjects, supplemented with extended project work and "softer, non-cognitive skills".
He will make the recommendations in a speech at the Association for Science Education (ASE) annual conference at the University of Reading, in which he will also call for the DfE's remit to be slimmed down "radically" and for the School Direct teacher training scheme to be formally reviewed after the general election.
Sir David, who is serving as ASE president for 2015, will urge ministers not to "bottle" out of introducing radical reforms, which he claims was the case a decade ago after the Tomlinson review of 14-19 education.
"The economy and society is changing out of all recognition and yet we still have an out-of-date system when the UK can least afford it," he will say. "It is a no-brainer given the demands of employers and society.
"Future generations will need retraining and education throughout their lives. A [baccalaureate] system sends out a clear message from preschool onwards that students must have a rounded education to equip them for this, with a wide range of skills on top of specialisms.
"A decade ago, ministers bottled creating such a system following the independent Tomlinson review because they were scared of being seen to be weak on standards. We cannot make the same mistake again."
Education needs to be spared from "short-term firefighting, ministerial personalities and electoral politics", Sir David will add, highlighting the decision by ministers to remove practical science from overall GCSE and A-level grades as an example of poorly considered policy.
"Failing to build consensus results in the sort of highly dangerous experiment by Ofqual and ministers to separate the grade for assessed practical work from the main grades at A-level and GCSE science," he will argue. "It sends out a message that hard-nosed practical skills are not valued equally to theory. It risks diverting cash from science department budgets for equipment, technicians and training."
Sir John Holman, adviser to the Wellcome Trust and emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York, wrote in a comment piece on the TES website last month that the decision to remove practicals was a "gamble that could jeopardise many thousands of pupils' future careers".
Sir David's call for a baccalaureate follows that of the Royal Society, which published a report in June demanding that A-levels be replaced to address the fact that "too many people in the UK are mathematically and scientifically illiterate".
Support for a baccalaureate-style leaving certificate is growing among schools, with the Headteachers' Roundtable, a thinktank of school leaders, pushing for a national baccalaureate to be adopted across the country.
The qualification would involve students sitting A-levels as well as completing an extended project and participating in formal extracurricular activities, such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme.
A source within one of the country's main exam boards said there was little appetite politically or within the school system for the complete replacement of A-levels.
"It makes sense for the science community to push for a baccalaureate-style system as they want to make sure their subject does not get pushed out," the source said. "There is a move towards including English and maths beyond 16, and so there is a fear that science gets squeezed out, but there isn't the time or money in schools to make science compulsory as well."
Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School in York, has first-hand experience of teaching the International Baccalaureate and says that he, and many of his peers, feel it better prepares students for university.
"There is far more challenge and breadth in it," he says. "But a change from A-levels to a baccalaureate-style system just isn't timely.
"The amount of change we have been through means there is change fatigue in the system currently. There would have to be a proper consultation, with proper trials being done. But judging by previous policies you can only be sceptical about how it would be implemented."