The post-16 curriculum is the centre of attention - and controversy. Diane Hofkins reports on Labour's addition to the debate.
The Labour party came closer than ever this week to admitting it would phase out A-levels and replace them with an "over-arching certificate" which embraces both academic and vocational studies.
Bryan Davies, spokesman for further and higher education, told The TES that Labour was considering a modular qualification which would include core skills such as literacy and numeracy, as well as breadth of study. These would be combined with other modules which, "for those seeking to pursue the traditional academic structure, will look like A-levels", he said.
He stressed Labour wanted to retain the rigour of A-levels, but also broaden them to meet the future needs of individuals and employers. Any change would take time, perhaps between five and 15 years. Eventually, however, the term A-level would disappear.
The traditional three A-level option would run in parallel with the broader option in the short term, but would be unlikely to remain beyond 2010. Mr Davies stressed that any changes would have to win popular support.
There has been confusion over Labour's A-level plans. Critics see the party as trying to have it both ways, claiming it will both strengthen, and replace, them. Tony Blair told a Confederation of British Industry conference on Monday that Labour wanted to broaden A-levels, and the party's manifesto will also advocate strengthening GNVQs and moving toward an over-arching qualification. More radical changes would be for the future. Sources close to David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, were quick to distance themselves from Mr Davies' comments.
Meanwhile, the Government is sticking by the A-level "gold standard". Ministers are known to have made it clear that they do not want Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds to make any proposals which could threaten it.
Lord Henley, Minister of State for Education, told a conference on held in London on Monday: "It is clear from his interim report that Sir Ron recognises that A-levels are a central plank of our educational system and will remain so."
Sir Ron told the conference, organised by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and the Midland Examining Group: "A-levels haven't built up their present reputation and sustained it for 40 years without being good for the purposes for which they were created."
But he did say they were not created for everyone, and that they were developed when few stayed on after 16. "I don't think the answer is to change A-levels, but to develop alternatives," he said. These could be as rewarding and as demanding as the A-level.
When he launched his interim report in July, Sir Ron told The TES that nothing was sacred. In proposing detailed options for a national certificate to encompass all qualifications, he was seen to have exceeded his remit. However, the report was accepted in full by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary. And Sir Ron has denied he is under pressure to protect A-levels.
One suggestion in the report is for a package of three A-levels, two AS-levels to add breadth, plus core skills.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, added further to the confusion at a conference on girls' and boys' achievement last week. "I do not believe in bridging the academic-vocational divide," he said.
Bryan Davies said if Sir Ron's work was blocked by ministers, it would take longer to effect change once Labour came into power. He told the UCLES conference that unless the country was prepared to reform A-levels, society's needs would not be met. A-levels were too restrictive for many students. "We have got to seek to avoid too early and narrow specialisation." What was needed was a framework providing opportunities for excellence for all, he said.
He called for progression and continuity between pre- and post-16 education, and said that the goals for schooling - such as promoting children's moral, spiritual and physical development - set out in the 1988 Education Act should be extended to post-16.