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July 26, 2012

Readers of Times Higher Education might not have noticed two technical papers published by the Department for Education in early July that herald a monumental shift in A levels with major implications for higher education. Meanwhile, a small sideshow, the Ofqual consultation on A levels, has stolen the limelight.

Study Programmes for 16-19 Year Olds - Government Response to Consultation and Plans for Implementation and 16-19 Funding Formula Review come into effect in September 2013. Transitional protection may limit the full implications until 2016: after that, Curriculum 2000 will be reversed and students in state sixth-form colleges and schools will, probably, study only three A levels.

The rationale? First, private schools tend to enter their students for only three A levels, so why should state schools average more? (No comparison, you will note, is made of taught hours, extension work or enrichment activities.) Second, offers from even the most competitive university are based on three A levels, so it is argued that universities do not expect a broader curriculum.

Will applicants in 2016 have the breadth of study that four AS levels offer? Will they be able to compete with privately educated peers if the average successful candidate to read medicine at the University of Oxford has 3.9 A levels? Is further maths alongside three A levels a thing of the past? Will we be able to attract to and retain on A-level programmes students from chaotic or disadvantaged backgrounds and progress them to university?

In December 2010, the coalition announced a reduction in funding for tutoring and enrichment activities in sixth forms from 128 hours a year to 30. In a personal letter, Michael Gove, the education secretary, explained that "my first priority must be to protect the core educational programmes offered by schools and colleges". Now it appears he cannot even do that.

THE has enriched the debates about the suitability of A levels as preparation for university, inclusivity and successful applications from state-educated students. While we hone our responses to Ofqual, Rome burns. It is time to talk fundamentals: what do we want school- and college-leavers to look like, and what kind of experience does the state need to offer them at sixth form to fulfil this vision?

Jonathan Prest, Principal of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, Chair of Wessex Group of Sixth Form Colleges

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