Nicholas Pyke reports on proposals to offer bright sixth-formers wider access to S-level papers
Professional bodies and private schools should club together in "centres of excellence" to help comprehensive school pupils study for the elite S-level exam, according to advice presented to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
An advisory panel convened by the SCAA has concluded that state school pupils need access to centres of excellence - possibly sited in independent schools - if new proposals for S-levels ("special papers") are to take off.
Government bodies are working to revive the special paper, a harder exam than A-level, thanks to the strong support it received from Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications.
In line with Sir Ron's proposals, the Universities and Colleges Admissions System is drawing up plans to give the S-level an official points score for the purpose of admission to higher education.
This is despite the fact that the S-level is widely ignored by universities because the majority of schools lack the time and expertise to teach it.
Dr Peter Cattermole, head of science at Winchester College, one of the most academically demanding schools in the country, is a member of the advisory panel. "We're thinking about some national scheme drawing 18-year-olds into centres of excellence so that boys and girls can have their studies enriched, " he said.
The panel has suggested that industry and major professional bodies like the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics or the Association for Science Education could promote the scheme and even help finance it.
Private schools and colleges of further and higher education could all have a role.
Another member of the panel, Heather James, assistant chief executive of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, agreed that S-level could benefit from a pooling of resources.
"It is true that many of the people who have the expertise are in the independent sector," she said.
The NEAB is working to produce a series of inter-board S-levels along with the Associated Examining Board and the Welsh Joint Education Committee.
Vivian Anthony, a panel member and secretary of the Head Masters' Conference, representing the larger independent schools, said: "If there's a real special needs group which has been neglected in recent times, it's the top ability group."
S-levels, he said, would be one way of stretching the very brightest pupils beyond the contraints of the normal curriculum. "This would be one field in which independent schools could seek to co-operate with the new Government, offering facilities or teachers to some extent. Provided, of course, that such co-operation is seen as a two-way street."
Another source of pressure for special papers stems from concern that the brightest pupils are no longer catered for by A-level studies, even at the top grades. Some university admissions tutors complain that it is impossible to identify the best candidates on the basis of A-level grades alone.
"The universities come to us and say 'how are we to discriminate between all these people with three As at A-level?'." said Mr Anthony. "The S-level is one way of doing so."