The Government risks missing an historic opportunity to help poor people into higher education if it fails to back the Tomlinson proposals to reform school qualifications, it was claimed this week.
Fears are growing that the Government will reprieve A levels and fail to back fully Mike Tomlinson's proposal for a European-style diploma that would integrate them with GCSEs and vocational qualifications.
Geoff Layer, director of Action on Access and professor of lifelong learning at Bradford University, said the key to widening participation was to engage with potential students holding vocational qualifications. Some 90 per cent of students with two A-level passes enter higher education.
He said: "The key benefit that Tomlinson brings for higher education is the promise of balance and parity of esteem among potential routes into universities and colleges.
"Any change to that parity of esteem will condemn us to more years of a divide between who enters higher education and what higher education they enter.
"It is unlikely that a student would be able to enter certain universities on the basis of anything other than A levels. Where universities are taking students with qualifications other than A levels, they restrict them to particular types of courses and they do not get the full spectrum of what these universities can offer."
Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, let it be known that A levels would be saved after an exam points system for GCSEs was criticised for awarding more points for a cake decorating qualification than for physics.
The Government's White Paper response to the Tomlinson proposals for the reform of education of 14 to 19-year-olds - due next week - is expected to back the introduction of a vocational work-related diploma, while stretching more able sixth-form students by offering them university courses.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority warned last week that Tomlinson's proposals must be accepted as a whole.
Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the QCA, said: "The proposals constitute a package of interdependent recommendations that together will be of profound importance to the future of 14-to-19 education.
"The QCA believes that the potential for a step-change in participation and attainment lies in the integrity of the whole 14-to-19 diploma programme. Any partial implementation of the proposals would compromise that integrity."
Meanwhile, the Open University is bidding for government funding to offer higher education course modules to the brightest pupils in schools.
The OU, which has been running a scheme since 1996 that now encompasses 500 pupils at 60 schools, has written to Ms Kelly offering to run the scheme nationally in line with government plans.
David Vincent, pro vice-chancellor for external affairs at the OU, said: "We've written to the minister about the recent press stories about their intention to stretch the most gifted pupils in schools by giving them access to university study, and we are looking forward to discussing it further with Ruth Kelly.
"We think we could make a rapid and practical response to the Government's initiative on the basis of the experience we have with the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme - all we would need is better funding and more support from the Department for Education and Skills.
"We can guarantee quality nationally, we can guarantee the coverage nationally and, through our regional centres, we can administer the system across the country."