Diplomas set to replace A-levels as 'jewel in the crown' of exams system

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The Independent Online

The end of A-levels was signalled by the Government yesterday as it announced plans to offer three new diplomas in secondary schools from 2011.

In a dramatic policy shift, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said that diplomas in science, languages and the humanities would be offered from 2011 onwards, in addition to the 14 vocational diplomas already planned. He said a final decision on the future of A-levels would be made in 2013.

He predicted that the diplomas could become "the qualification of choice " and "the jewel in the crown of the education system" over the next decade if they are "successfully introduced and are delivering the mix that employers and universities value".

But the Secretary of State has delayed a review planned for next year which was expected to recommend that A-levels be withdrawn completely and replaced with a diploma system modelled on the International Baccalaureate.

The two sets of exams will now run side by side for at least five years, despite warnings from Mr Balls' predecessor that this could cause the reforms to go "horribly wrong". Alan Johnson, the former education secretary, warned in March that concurrent systems could result in diplomas being seen as inferior qualifications, "becoming, if you like, the secondary modern compared to the grammar".

The move was given a cautious welcome by universities. Dr Wendy Piatt, of the Russell Group, which represents the top 20 higher education research institutions in Britain, said it was concerned about the number of pupils studying science A-levels.

"We particularly welcome the introduction of a science diploma as we are still concerned about the low proportion of students – largely from state schools – taking science A-levels."

But Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, criticised the move. " Diplomas were supposed to be about improving vocational education not undermining academic excellence," he said.

Steve Sinnott, the general-secretary of the National Union of Teachers, urged ministers to go further, arguing that waiting until 2013 would still put them at a major disadvantage with higher education institutions. " Diplomas were supposed to be about improving vocational education not undermining academic excellence."