A-level and GCSE testing in the North could be scrapped in favour of a more broad-based alternative, the Education Department said tonight.
English-style diplomas and the Welsh baccalaureate are being considered for the future, minister Caitriona Ruane’s spokeswoman said.
A report by a university academic in England warned today that diplomas there combining practical and academic learning could spell disaster.
Ms Ruane’s official said: “The Department has been adopting a monitoring position in relation to the development of the new English diploma and the Welsh baccalaureate.
“A working group will be established from key education stakeholders to review experiences, not only of these qualifications, but also the Irish leaving certificate.
“They will then formulate a local view on the potential development of a more broadly based alternative to the traditional GCSE and A-level.”
Professor Alan Smithers’ dossier, published today, said the new English diplomas, to be rolled out from September, could undermine educational standards and fail to prepare teenagers for university or work.
Ministers said they had won support from employers, schools and experts.
However, National Grammar Schools Association (NGA) head Robert McCartney QC said: “We should stay with A-levels and toughen the exams.
“We should stop massaging results and using education as a mechanism for ideological and sociological (warfare) and use schools for what they are intended, to educate people.”
Imperial College London is to set its own entrance exams because it said all applicants had four or five A-levels and the current system didn’t discriminate enough between the brightest pupils.
However, Mr McCartney added that the record in England, where comprehensives produced inferior results to Northern Ireland’s system, proved the need to reinforce the A-level.
“A-levels have been dumbed down and debased with subjects like media studies or drama which are not the equivalent of physics or chemistry,” he added.
Mr Smithers, a University of Buckingham academic, argued in his report, The Diploma – A Disaster Waiting To Happen, that diplomas would not improve existing qualifications and had difficulties of their own.
He said it was “extremely doubtful” whether the same qualification could prepare pupils well both for an apprenticeship and for a university degree.
The report also warned that the diploma will largely be assessed internally by teachers, “so it will be difficult to ensure comparability of standards in the same subject let alone between them”.
“Access to universities and employment will inevitability be less fair,” it added.
“The annual cries about A-level standards will be as nothing compared to the uproar the diploma will provoke.”