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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 October 2007, 01:34 GMT 02:34 UK
Diplomas: what was that all about?
By Mike Baker

Exam hall
The future of A-levels has become more uncertain
"Curiouser and curiouser!"

Alice's response to her strange Adventures in Wonderland seems the most apt description for the latest twist in the tale of the new Diplomas.

Alice, of course, quickly admitted she was "speaking nonsense" but England's Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, knew exactly what he was saying with his surprise announcement this week about changes to the Diplomas.

Indeed, he effectively predicted the demise of A-levels, but he cloaked this sensational news in a confusing code; a real politician's "riddle wrapped up in an enigma".

So what did he actually say and what did he really mean?


The first bit is easy. He announced three new Diplomas in science, languages, and the humanities.

At the same time he predicted that the Diplomas could become the "qualification of choice" and the "jewel in the crown" of the education system.

He also postponed the review of A-levels, which had been planned for next year, until 2013. This happens to be the date by which the first students will have completed these newest additions to the set of Diplomas.

But what lay behind this announcement? There is now no election imminent. So it seems a safer moment to hint, as this announcement does albeit rather obliquely, at the end of A-levels.

Remember the background: when Sir Mike Tomlinson first proposed the Diplomas, the idea was that they would replace GCSEs and A-levels.

Thus students could follow a mix of academic and vocational courses, all under the umbrella of a single qualification. This, it was hoped, would end the age-old academic/vocational divide.

However Tony Blair - who was then facing a general election in which the Conservatives were rallying to defend A-levels - rejected that approach, insisting the traditional qualifications must stay.

Ever since then, the government has had a real battle on its hands to make the Diplomas appear attractive and prestigious to students, parents, universities and employers. This has proved difficult.


While they clearly cover vocational subjects, such as engineering, construction and tourism, the government insists they are "academic" qualifications.

No doubt ministers fear that a "vocational" label would condemn the Diplomas to second-class status, rather like GNVQs.

The result has been real confusion over just what sort of qualifications the Diplomas are meant to be. Many feared they had been set up to fail.

The denial of vocational status always seemed a bit odd. After all, the first five Diplomas, due to start next year, are in construction and the built environment, creative and media, engineering, information technology, and society, health and development.

These are all job-related subjects, even though their content will also include core skills like literacy and numeracy. The same is true of the other nine Diplomas due to follow from 2009.

The government has also insisted that the Diplomas should be a route to university, just like A-levels. But how many students taking the hair and beauty Diploma will be aiming for university?

They are much more likely to be aiming for jobs in a related area and there's nothing wrong with that.

None of this confusion would matter if we British were not so snobbish about qualifications. But we are!

However, it is also true that many students from other Diploma lines will want to go on to university and there will be sufficient academic content to make that perfectly possible.

None of this confusion would matter if we British were not so snobbish about qualifications. But we are!

So, until now, the dilemma has been how to present the Diplomas as equal but different from A-levels. The announcement from Ed Balls looks like an acceptance that this was always an impossible task.

Instead he has firmly parked the Diplomas on the A-level lawns, invading their traditional territory.

Sir Mike Tomlinson's approach was to end A-levels and include their content within the Diploma umbrella. Ed Balls seems now to have endorsed a similar aim, albeit by a more roundabout route.

So, to return to his announcement, note that the three new Diplomas are not in vocational subjects but in traditional academic areas: science, languages, and humanities.

This is a radical change. Why would you create Diplomas in subjects already well served by A-levels, unless you were planning for them to replace A-levels?

This looks to many like a U-turn. Mr Balls just hopes that, come 2013, the hands on the steering wheel will belong to students, colleges and employers.

It is an acceptance of the need for a single, over-arching Diploma system, covering both vocational and academic learning.


Presumably this is why Sir Mike Tomlinson was very happy to appear on the platform with Ed Balls and welcome the announcement as the chance to "make the academic and vocational divide a thing of the past".

Note too the comments from the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, Michael Arthur, who said the announcement offered the opportunity "to fully integrate existing qualifications and the new Diploma framework".

This is a big boost for the Diplomas, which very soon must recruit almost 40,000 students for the first year pilot.

No-one will go for them unless they are reassured the new qualifications have a long-term future.

If they are to be the "jewel in the crown" then that assumes they will replace A-levels which - to mix metaphors - are frequently described as "the gold standard".

Mr Balls may not still be there in 2013 but whoever is in charge of education in England by that time will find it much easier to say A-levels have outlived their usefulness if they can point to a flourishing alternative that embraces both vocational and academic subjects.

New Diplomas welcomed
25 Oct 07 |  Education

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