When the first youngsters sat their AS-Level papers last summer, the Government trumpeted that the exams

would broaden the post-16 curriculum.

Instead of narrowing their options at 16, most would now go on to take four or five subjects at AS-Level, rather than the usual three.

It sounded good in theory but, in practice, it was not long before parents and teachers complained the exams were a shambles and overburdening the youngsters.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris responded by ordering a review by the exam regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The result was an overhaul of the AS-Level and a pledge to slash the number of papers first-year sixth formers had to take, with students sitting single tests of up to three hours rather than large numbers of shorter papers.

Less than a year later, the Government has published its long-awaited Green Paper on 14-19 educational reforms.

The Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards proposals outline more changes to an already overburdened exam system.

Whether the reforms will prove as hard to digest as the AS-Levels remains to be seen.

The Green Paper is expected to include proposals for a new "overarching award" - similar to the French baccalaureate - where pupils take a mixture of academic and vocational subjects.

As part of the shake-up, Ms Morris is vowing to end the "culture of snobbery"

surrounding vocational qualifications.

From this September, 14-year-olds will be able to start new vocational GCSE courses in subjects such as health, leisure and tourism, engineering and computer technology.

These have received a cautious welcome from both business leaders and head teachers, who recognise the need to prepare students for the workplace.

But employers will probably still judge the worth of a vocational course against a more academic one, even if it carries the same GCSE or A-Level tag.

More than ten years ago, dozens of new universities emerged in place of former polytechnics, supposedly putting all graduates on an equal footing in the job market. But today's employers are still aware of the differences between the traditional universities and the new.

The Green Paper is also expected to give bright 18-

year-olds the opportunity to take a tough, new A-Level with distinction, to try to separate the almost one-infive candidates who achieve a grade A.

Ministers have dropped the idea of the A-starred grade and the new advanced extension awards which are being piloted this year.

Instead, those who are likely to achieve grade A at their A2-Level will be invited to try special questions in their exams to obtain a distinction.

One proposal which has drawn widespread condemnation is abolishing compulsory language lessons at 14.

Ms Morris is keen to see a shake-up in languages because the falling numbers taking A-Levels and degrees has shown "we don't do it very well", although she has hinted that foreign languages could be taken up at primary level.

Thirty six per cent of adults do not have five GCSEs or their equivalent, compared with 27 per cent in France and 17 per cent in Germany. Losing compulsory languages beyond age 14 will leave us lagging further behind.

As always, it will be the students who are the guinea pigs and they will be the ones to tell the Government if the reforms are workable or not.

But as one head teacher warns: "I question what we are trying to do by overexamining our youngsters and putting them under relentless pressure.

"Here we are with another knee-jerk reaction rather than a fundamental review of how we are going to assess our children."