Page last updated at 16:42 GMT, Wednesday, 31 January 2007

A-levels 'alongside new Diplomas'

Jim Knight before the select committee
Jim Knight: quality the priority with new qualifications

The government sees A-levels continuing beyond 2013 in England alongside its new Diplomas, a minister has confirmed.

Schools Minister Jim Knight told MPs he saw a future for the A-level within a "three-pronged offer" for youngsters.

But existing vocational qualifications would then "wither on the vine" as the partially academic Diplomas took over.

Members of the Commons education select committee had asked him how much of the Tomlinson report - on replacing current qualifications - was being implemented.

The first five Diplomas are being taught from September 2008, building up to 14 Diplomas in different employment-related areas by 2013 across the country.

'T word'

Committee chairman Barry Sheerman teased Mr Knight about the Diplomas' origins in the government-commissioned inquiry into 14 to 19 learning by the former chief inspector of schools, Sir Mike Tomlinson.

"What about the T word, minister?"

"Ah, him," said Mr Knight.

He said the government was implementing a large number of Tomlinson's recommendations, but not "other large areas".

He was however "delighted" Sir Mike was now going to be one of the official "Diploma champions" who would be publicising them once the details were finalised.

Mr Sheerman said some people described the new Diplomas as really "a stepping stone to Tomlinson".

The minister said: "I still see a future for the A-level.

"I think we have got a good offer in the entitlement in 2013, a three-pronged offer":

  • the traditional vocational route, with the expansion of apprenticeships
  • the traditional academic route with GCSEs, A-levels and the International Baccalaureate
  • Diplomas "in the middle", building on the strengths of both.

Mr Knight said it was part of the national psyche to think that "vocational" was for "people who are less able".

But evidence showed learners were better motivated if they could see the practical application in the real world of what they were being taught. Diplomas would be both vocational and academic.

He was asked if he saw them replacing other vocational qualifications such as BTecs.

"I guess I would say to you that over time the others would wither on the vine as the Diplomas win the argument, really," he said.

'Ran scared'

Labour MP Jeff Ennis asked why the government had not seized on the widespread support Tomlinson had accumulated.

Mr Knight said he was not in the government at the time.

"I can only presume that the decision was made that the A-level was something that people were familiar with and confident with and should be retained," he said.

Mr Sheerman said the "word on the street" was that the government "ran scared" of the employers' organisation the CBI - but that was "water under the bridge".


Mr Knight said the government's priority was that the first Diploma courses should be high quality.

He said 361 consortia - local partnerships of schools, colleges and other organisations - had applied to run Diplomas. Initial impressions were that the quality was very good.

He did not want to quote likely student numbers lest they be seen as a target.

The 50,000 in the first year that had been mentioned was "a ballpark figure".

Jon Coles, director of the 14-19 reform group at the Department for Education and Skills, sitting alongside Mr Knight, said that if all 361 consortia were approved there could be 160,000 youngsters involved.

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