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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February 2005, 18:10 GMT
Q&A: secondary school proposals
student chiselling brick
Employers are going to be devising new diplomas
The government is introducing employer-designed specialised diplomas for teenagers in England.

This is the main feature of its response to the Tomlinson report it commissioned on the future of 14-19 education.

Tomlinson had proposed an overall diploma to embrace all existing qualifications.

But the government has decided that GCSEs and A-levels will stay - and be reformed and strengthened.

Did the education secretary really say school-leavers cannot read and write properly?

She told MPs that 70,000 each year couldn't - which was "totally unacceptable".

So they are going to be the subject of a "relentless focus" to improve the basics, helped by a looser curriculum in the first three secondary years to allow more time for catch-up classes.

She also said: "I am toughening GCSE so that, in future, no-one will be able to get a higher grade in English or maths without mastering the basics."

The Tories promptly highlighted the fact that after eight years of Labour government, people could get higher grade English or maths GCSEs without even knowing the basics.

Anyway, in future you will not get a grade C or above without having passed a test in "functional" literacy and numeracy, yet to be devised.

And there is a twist to this.

One of the new diplomas will be a "general" one for those who achieve the equivalent of five good GCSEs (grade C or above) - including English and maths.

The intention is that by 2008 this will become the new benchmark in the secondary school league tables - currently five good GCSEs or equivalent is used, but without the subjects being specified.

What are the other diplomas?

The biggest change to the system is the introduction of specialised diplomas, designed to rationalise no fewer than 3,500 existing vocational qualifications.

Health and social care
Creative and media
Information and communication technology
Public services
Land based and environmental
Construction and the built environment
Hospitality and catering
Hair and beauty
Sport and leisure
Travel and tourism
Business administration and finance
They are to be offered in 14 broad work-related "lines of learning" (see panel), the first four starting by 2008.

They will be at three levels: 1 (foundation) 2 (GCSE) and 3 (advanced).

The key element is the government's intention to "put employers in the driving seat".

So the diplomas will be designed by the Sector Skills Councils.

What are they?

A fairly new, UK-wide network intended to increase skills and productivity.

They comprise employers, trade unions, professional bodies and government in such areas as construction, financial services, "GoSkills" (passenger transport) and "Improve" (food and drink manufacturing).

How will these diplomas work?

The white paper gives some examples.

Take David: did well in his national curriculum tests at the age of 14 so is in the top 25% nationally, but also likes taking things apart and putting them back together, so fancies engineering.

He could do straight GCSEs - perhaps maths, English language and literature, ICT, double science, history, French and a new GCSE in engineering.

He is good at maths so might do the GCSE early and be doing an AS-level when he is 16.

Or he could take a mixed route including a new engineering Level 2 Diploma, with GCSEs in maths, English language and literature and ICT - still doing the maths early.

Outside the diploma he could do a French GCSE, within it GCSE double award applied science, GCSE design technology and a BTec First Certificate in engineering, with optional modules such as City and Guilds progression awards and NVQs.

Then, after 16, he could do A-levels, or a Level 3 Diploma including A-level maths, a double award vocational A-level or a BTec certificate in engineering, with other options such as AS-level physics.

The government argues that, either way, he would be well prepared for university.

What is not clear is, in that case, why he would do one rather than the other.

Critics would say "David" is the ideal - a high-flyer - but that in practice the diploma will be seen as the option for those who cannot manage the more academic demands of non-vocational subjects.

And he might be well-prepared either way, but will universities see it like that?

As the "customer" at the end of the school system, they often call the shots.

Just as now there is in theory a points system for university admissions, many of the best institutions and departments still quote entry requirements in the currency of A-level grades.

"We need all universities valuing these qualifications," said Ms Kelly. "We need employers actively seeking out students who hold these qualifications."

If diplomas are so good why did the government not adopt them for all qualifications?

Would you go into an election as the prime minister who scrapped A-levels?

But Ruth Kelly was forceful in rejecting the idea that there even was a consensus that A-levels and GCSEs should be abolished.

"That is not what teachers, parents or children in the classroom tell me," she said.

The great and good of the educational establishment are not the only constituency she has in mind.

So is that the end of the Tomlinson plan?

Not necessarily.

Sir Mike has said he is disappointed but - being "a practising optimist" - does not think it is all over.

He suggests that if those in the consensus he built up keep up the arguments, then a review of things in a few years' time might still see wider diploma programme develop.

The head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Ken Boston, apparently feels that he also has plenty to work with.

So once the election is out of the way, keep watching this space.

But A-levels are going to be 'more challenging'?

There will be extra questions to "stretch" the brightest.

A problem many popular universities have is distinguishing between large numbers of equally well qualified applicants.

Cambridge, for example, said this week it had turned away well over 5,000 this year who had straight As.

You might think it would welcome the government's move.

Instead it is warning that making these tougher questions optional might count against clever but less confident students, who will not attempt them - and who thus will not get fair access to the best universities.

A-levels are also going to be slimmed down, part of an effort to reduce all the exams youngsters have to take.

There will be four assessments in each subject instead of six.

Watch reaction to the government's reforms

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