Leading article: Exams to match the nation's needs

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The Independent Online

The Government is making welcome moves to improve the standing of vocational education in secondary schools. Employers have been drafted in to help write the syllabuses for the 14 specialist diplomas that will be offered in schools and colleges from 2010. Talks have been going on between civil servants and leaders of the country's universities and independent schools to ensure there is support for the alternative to GCSEs and A-levels.

It looks for the first time, therefore, that the curriculum of the new vocational qualifications will match the needs of the nation - and be recognised by employers and universities alike. It is difficult to see how a diploma in engineering could be seen as inferior to traditional academic qualifications, because it includes maths and physics up to the standard of A-level. These diplomas are indeed "Tomlinsonesque", as some people have claimed. They deliver in content what the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson called for in his inquiry into 14 to 19 education. There are, however, hurdles to overcome.

First, much of the expertise when it comes to teaching the new diplomas lies within the further education sector. So, if they really do take the place of A-levels and GCSEs for the majority of youngsters within the next decade, as Government advisers believe, the further education sector will be taking on a bigger role at the expense of the school sector. There is little evidence that enough effort is being made at the moment to get schools on side for the new programme. Second, although the Government may have done the work needed for the curriculum content of the new diplomas, there is still a question mark over the structure of the examination system.

Because the diplomas are seen as an alternative to the traditional academic route, there is a danger that they will be viewed as its poorer relation by employers, who don't understand the quality of the new qualifications, and by parents and schools, who prefer to stick with the tried-and-tested academic route. That problem would be overcome, of course, if ministers had the courage to go the whole hog and embrace Tomlinson's recommendation to introduce an overarching diploma for everyone to include GCSE and A-levels. That, regrettably, still seems to be a U-turn too far in the eyes of the Government.

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