Universities and schools need to agree on an admissions policy for the reformed sixth-form curriculum before it is too late, sector leaders have urged.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "We cannot go on playing this game of cat and mouse indefinitely. It is absolutely crucial that schools get guidance from universities and we need it pretty quickly."
Yet universities claim that they have had little information on the system due to be put in place from September. Sixth-formers will be able to take up to five advanced subsidiary levels (AS levels), and can choose to carry three or more subjects on to A level after one year.
Adding to the confusion are the extra tests being piloted, which are designed to help universities differentiate between students on A-level courses where large proportions of candidates already receive grade As. The advanced extension awards (AEAs) have been attacked as elitist and discriminatory, particularly by further education colleges, which will find it difficult to provide them.
Jaqueline Henshaw, admissions tutor at Manchester University, said: "We know there is going to be a problem but we have been working in the dark. There has been a lack of clear feedback and we have felt the need to be quite conservative."
The consensus emerging as a result of local links between schools and universities is that sixth-formers should be advised to take four AS levels and three A levels.
Ken Young, admissions officer at Newcastle University, said: "We are quite happy with the four-plus-three combination. But higher education and schools are still second-guessing one another."
Ms Henshaw said: "We have become aware that some inner-city schools will not be able to offer students a fourth AS level. This is a real problem as we do not want to disadvantage pupils."
Oxford and Cambridge universities will be looking for a minimum of four AS levels and three A levels. Susan Stubbs, director of admissions at Cambridge, said: "We are going on what schools have told us they can do."
Jane Minto, admissions officer at Oxford, agreed that universities were framing their requirements to school specifications. "It is crucial that these tests are available across all kinds of schools."
But some schools and colleges say they lack the resources to provide all of the entry requirements.
Mr Dunford said: "Schools will not encourage their students to do more subjects if they are not fully certain that they will benefit their university applications. There is no clear message."
The Association of Colleges has warned that the advanced extension awards will benefit privileged private school students at the expense of state school and college pupils and damage the delicate parity of esteem built between vocational and academic qualifications.
Mr Dunford said they would only really be of benefit to those applying to Oxbridge, or to those who want to read oversubscribed subjects.
They are designed to "stretch the most able" students, providing greater depth and setting standards comparable "with the most demanding to be found in other countries".
Ministers have also said that they will remove the need for universities to set entrance exams. But critics fear they are effectively a reintroduction of the Oxbridge entrance exams.
Judith Norrington, AoC director of curriculum and quality, said: "The test should be available to everybody doing ad-
vanced level study, not just some."
The exam is not apparently available to students sitting advanced-level General National Vocational Qualifications.
Ms Norrington said: "This will re-emphasise the academic/vocational divide, with the implication that academic qualifications are superior."
There is also concern that the tests will be available only in 14 traditional subject areas, although the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that this "may be extended in the light of practical experience". The AoC said this automatically disadvantaged students on non-traditional courses.
FE colleges also suspect that state schools and colleges will not have sufficient resources to provide additional tuition and support for students sitting the tests. Ministers said the tests would require no major additional teaching but college leaders suspect that private schools will provide extra support.
The test will be shared across awarding bodies, will be externally assessed and benchmarked against standards set for the most able students overseas, the QCA said. Initial trials will begin this year, with a pilot in 2001, leading to full availability in 2002.