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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 May 2007, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Might Brown be Diplomas champion?
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Exam hall
Could traditional exams become a thing of the past under Mr Brown?
If ever there was an opportunity for the putative prime minister to make a mark on education, this is it.

When he decides to call a general election, Gordon Brown will need to have achieved two things: proved he is different from Tony Blair and put some clear blue water between himself and David Cameron.

In education policy, both aims are potentially difficult.

First, take the Blair legacy. Mr Brown has already indicated that he will continue most of the Blair education reforms: the focus on numeracy and literacy, the academy programme, and widening participation in university admissions.

Second, look at where David Cameron is positioning himself. The shift away from supporting grammar schools in favour of academies places him even more on Blair's territory.

MPs' intervention

Incidentally, the grammar school shift will have major repercussions within Cameron's own party.

The Tory leader's bold aim was to put pressure on Brown over academies. By offering unlimited support to these new-style schools he hopes to contrast his position with Mr Brown's belief that there is no need to go beyond the planned 400 academies.

Someone is needed to step in to save what is potentially the biggest exam reform since the introduction of GCSEs 20 years ago
He may, though, just have created more trouble for himself.

Meanwhile, back to Gordon: how can he be distinctive in education?

Well, this week the Commons education committee offered him a big opportunity. Someone is needed to step in to save what is potentially the biggest exam reform since the introduction of GCSEs 20 years ago.

By highlighting the real prospect of the Diplomas heading for disaster, the committee did exactly what parliamentarians should do: a thorough job of scrutinising the nitty-gritty of government, spotting the car crash before it happens.

Tomlinson report

Most readers of this column will be familiar with the background to the Diplomas. However, there have been some twists and turns along the way.

So, as they say in the best serials, "new readers start here".

It all began when the government asked Sir Mike Tomlinson to propose changes in the English exam system that would encourage more engagement amongst 14 to 16-year-olds, better staying-on rates after 16, and offer a boost to vocational education.
Downing Street feared a backlash from those who regard the A-level as the 'gold standard'
In 2004, he recommended a single overarching qualification: the Specialised Diploma.

The existing qualifications, including A-levels and GCSEs, would be incorporated into the Diplomas. So, while their essential components would remain, they would cease to be free-standing qualifications.

The idea received overwhelming support from the education profession and from the main employers' organisation.

But a General Election loomed and Downing Street feared a backlash from those who regard the A-level as the "gold standard".

So the Diplomas became an add-on to the examination system not an overarching reform.

A-levels 'Plus'

Nevertheless, a lot is riding on them. Many see them as essential to the drive to raise the standing of vocational education and to address the country's skills needs.

There are, of course, some good reasons for not becoming the Diploma champion
The first Diplomas are due to start in 2008. Yet there is a real fear that they will flop.

With GCSEs and A-levels continuing, it will be very difficult to persuade parents, pupils and schools to opt for an untried option that is no longer guaranteed to become a mainstream qualification.

Universities, too, appear to be in no hurry to come to the aid of the Diploma by saying they would welcome applicants who have come through this new route.

All this could change immediately if Gordon Brown decided to revert to the original Tomlinson idea: a single overarching qualification, a wrapper - if you like - around A-levels and GCSEs, but also offering something more.

This way the Diploma would become "A-levels/GCSEs Plus", where the "plus" is the extra components of work experience, extended project, vocational studies and core skills.

Or not

So, why might Gordon Brown want to step in as the saviour of the Diplomas?

There are a number of reasons: it would boost his own clearly identified priority of boosting skills; it would offer colleges the qualification they will need to deliver the raising of the education leaving age; it would win support from the teaching profession; it could encourage broader access to universities and, finally, it would underline Brown's difference from Tony Blair.

There are, of course, some good reasons for not becoming the Diploma champion: first, it will antagonise supporters of traditional exams who believe they have been tinkered with too much already and, second, any examination reform is an extremely high-risk undertaking.

As Curriculum 2000 showed, when change fails to go smoothly the politicians are left with egg on their faces. But politics and leadership are about taking risks.

If Gordon Brown believes that vocational education needs a boost, and that new pathways are needed for those pupils who are switched off purely academic courses by the age of 14, then breathing new life into the Diplomas would offer him the opportunity to do just that.

If he wants to make his mark, the Diplomas are his opportunity.

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