Plans to introduce a new A** at A level to help universities distinguish between the brightest candidates won the backing of Britain's biggest head teachers' association this week.
Just days before the publication of the final report of a government inquiry into reform of the 14-to-19 exam system, the National Association of Headteachers endorsed the idea of an A, A* and A** grading system at A level.
The inquiry, which was led by Mike Tomlinson, former schools chief inspector, is expected to be published on Monday. Mr Tomlinson will propose merging A levels, GCSEs and vocational qualifications into a four-level diploma system in the next decade.
Students following the advanced level of the diploma would sit compulsory "core" subjects in literacy, numeracy and computer skills at the equivalent of A level, in addition to their choice of specialist subjects.
To achieve the A** grade, students would have to answer the type of questions currently in the advanced extension awards, which replaced the AS level.
David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said he was relieved that Mr Tomlinson had backed away from the four or five subdivisions of the A grades discussed in his interim report.
Mr Hart said: "Although the NAHT isn't totally sold on the advanced extension test, an A** would be better than a wholly unacceptable subgrading that I think would send a demotivating message to students who get an A grade."
Both Mr Tomlinson and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, will field questions on the proposed reforms at a conference on Tuesday, October 19 organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and sponsored by The Times Higher .