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James Meikle, education correspondent

Friday December 1, 2006

The Guardian

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1961342,00.html

Teenagers face a radical reform of exam courses at 16 as the government tries to prove it is not wedded only to A-levels.

Tony Blair yesterday said he wanted to more than treble the number of state schools and colleges offering the international baccalaureate in England, a broader qualification than A-levels. At present 46 state schools and sixth-form colleges offer the qualification. Alan Johnson, the education secretary, also promised that there would more demanding questions at A-level and a new A* grade.

Critics immediately suggested that the prime minister's enthusiasm for the alternative called into question his previous determination to defend the A-level gold standard.

But government sources made clear that only a few thousand pupils were likely to follow the IB and its six-subject programme, while 250,000 still took new improved A-levels. He also stressed that new diplomas in vocational areas, to start in 2008, and apprenticeships would prove popular.

Mr Blair said: "We believe there should be at least one sixth-form college or school in every local authority offering students the choice of the IB. So we will support up to 100 extra schools and colleges in training staff to offer the qualification by 2010.

"If you are serious about tailoring education to the needs of young people, they should have real choices after 14 - strong qualifications with A-levels, [vocational] diplomas, the IB and apprenticeships."

He told the annual conference of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in Birmingham: "Do not misunderstand me. The majority of students will continue to do A-levels and GCSEs, but diplomas, and for some IB, offer new options."

Mr Blair also confirmed that he was doubling the target number of flagship academies, the independently sponsored state schools, from 200 to 400. He said he and supporters "have been creating a new system of secondary education. What was once monochrome is now a spectrum offering a range of freedoms and pathways."

In a robust defence of his record on education, which has caused tensions within his party, Mr Blair said: "I don't say in these 10 years our schools are everything they would or should be. But I do say they are a world away from where they were."

He also said there were new school buildings, sports halls and computers and teachers were paid something closer to what they were worth.

The A-level changes will take effect for teenagers starting in 2008. Mr Johnson told a conference of sixth-form college heads, also in Birmingham, that a generation ago one in 10 entrants received an A grade. Now it was one in four, "not because the exam has got easier, but because teaching has improved and pupils are studying harder."

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