Ministers have stamped on any reform of post-16 qualifications which could threaten the gold standard of A-level.
Sources close to ministers have revealed Government concern that Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications could lead, by a backdoor route, to the death of A-levels.
Their disclosure has raised serious questions about the point of the review by Sir Ron, the, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Sir Ron was asked in April to review the post-16 system by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, who insisted that A-levels, far from being abolished, should be strengthened.
Consultation over the review closes today and analysis of the more than 400 responses by The TES reveals that schools and colleges overwhelmingly support the introduction of an national certificate or over-arching qualification which would stretch both the highest and lowest achievers and break down the divide between vocational and academic subjects. Previous attempts to introduce an over-arching qualification have failed because no one could agree on parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes.
Sir Ron denied that he was under pressure from the DFEE not to introduce a possible threat to A-levels. The national certificate, combining breadth with depth, was an option presented in his interim report in July and has attracted a great deal of interest. But he said there had been no suggestion of inventing something to take over from A or AS-levels.
"I am not threatening A-levels. I daren't. It is not by accident that they are so highly regarded." He insisted that his mind was still open on which qualification he would eventually recommend to ministers next Easter.
He is looking at three models, all of which would lead to a national certificate. One would sort or "badge" qualifications into foundation, intermediate or advanced categories. The second is a grouped award given to young people who achieve the national target of two A-levels, or their vocational equivalent, plus core skills. The third is a French-style baccalaureate award. All three allow mix of academic and vocational studies.
Students would still be free to take the traditional three A-levels, but ministers fear that the national certificate - with its possible academic and vocational mix - could eventually achieve equal status. They are opposed to this.
However, seven organisations representing virtually all school and college heads in the state and private sectors, have backed a model which could be a stepping-stone to abolition.
The radical edge of this group - the Association for Colleges, the Secondary Heads Association and the Sixth Form Colleges Association - ultimately want the curriculum broken down into hundreds of small sections. These would be the size of current A-level modules or general national vocational qualification units such as "speaking French" or "business in Europe".
Students would then pick and mix to create their own customised qualifications and, with guidance from their teachers, choose the method of assessment. This would put the exam system into the marketplace.
Some leading academics are wary of any attempt to tamper with A-levels. Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Manchester University, is sceptical of the group of seven's approach.
He said that it was premature to talk about an over-arching qualification. The three qualifications must be right first and A-levels were more developed than the other two.