The new curriculum for sixth-formers will not give talented students studying vocational subjects the same opportunities to shine as those studying academic subjects, delegates at a conference on the new qualifications heard this week.
"The government is just opening up the split between academic and vocational subjects," said Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which organised the conference.
From this September, 16-year-olds will study a reformed curriculum that will include new vocational A levels. The brightest will have the chance to sit A-level extension papers, in place of the present S level. However, extension papers will be offered only in a narrow range of subjects currently studied at A level.
"Some of the brightest students currently study GNVQs. Can I make a plea that we don't penalise that group?" Mr Higgins asked Malcolm Wicks, minister for lifelong learning.
Responding on Mr Wicks's behalf, a civil servant said: "We expect it (the qualification) to sit more readily alongside academic qualifications but it will become less true (that it will be limited to more academic students) as those studying GNVQ subjects will study academic subjects as well."
Trial papers in five subjects - chemistry, English, French, geo-graphy and maths - will be introduced this May. Papers in biology, economics, history, German, Latin, physics, religious studies and Spanish will be added to complete the range for students taking the first full papers in May 2002.
Mr Wicks said: "The new advanced extension awards - which are being designed in close collaboration with the universities - will stretch the most able candidates by requiring a greater depth of understanding than A levels. We are also designing them so that more young people will take them than currently sit A levels."
Ucas, together with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Association of Colleges, plans to monitor the effects of the new curriculum by following a cohort of students over six or seven years.
The Department for Education and Employment is also planning a long-term study of the effects of the reform.