Scrap diplomas and go back to the drawing board, urges CBI

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The Independent Online

Britain's employers have withdrawn their support for the Government's new diplomas, urging ministers to go back to the drawing board and concentrate on improving GCSEs and A-levels instead. The CBI's move comes just months before the new qualifications were to be introduced in schools this autumn.

The diplomas were devised by ministers to put vocational and academic qualifications on an equal footing in an attempt to address complaints from employers that youngsters were leaving school ill-equipped for the world of industry.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, then introduced a new academic strand to the diplomas – making them available in subject areas such as languages, sciences and the humanities. He said he could see them replacing GCSEs and A-levels as the main qualification for tomorrow's teenagers.

But Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI, said: "Employers understand and value GCSEs and A-levels and firmly believe these should remain as a cornerstone of the education system. Introducing a range of science, humanities and language diplomas runs the risk of undermining the integrity of these traditional academic subjects. And they could also be a distraction from the need to raise the numbers of young people studying science and maths."

Until now, the CBI has backed the diploma programme – but only as a parallel qualification to GCSEs and A-levels, offering more in-depth study in vocational areas such as engineering and hospitality.

Going ahead with the present proposals, it argues, would lead to a "fractured, two-tier, education system with private schools opting for GCSEs and A-levels – or even the International Baccalaureate – while state schools use diplomas".

In a submission to ministers on the future of the examination system, the CBI urges ministers to retain and improve GCSE and A-levels "to ensure they are of a high quality and where appropriate made more rigorous". It wants them to develop the idea of vocational diplomas but scrap the academic ones.

The Government's reform of exams has had a chequered history since it rejected the advice of an inquiry headed by Sir Mike Tomlinson, a former chief schools' inspector, that there should be an overarching diploma to incorporate both the GCSE/A-level strand and vocational qualifications. The Government opted instead for a separate diploma to run beside existing examinations.

Ministers insist they are strengthening A-levels. From September, tougher questions will be designed to bring out pupils' thinking skills in essay-style answers. In addition, an A* grade is to be introduced for students who start their A-level courses this autumn.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the CBI's decision as disappointing. "An important part of the success of the diploma is securing the support of employers and universities for it," he said. "Employers have been involved in the design of the diplomas. They should be enthusiastic champions of them."

Jim Knight, the Schools minister, said he was surprised by the CBI's response. "Most people agree we should seek to end the divide between academic and vocational diplomas," he said. "All 17 diplomas seek to achieve that."

Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, warned: "By pushing ahead with the plans for academic diplomas, the Government risks undermining the existing diplomas and it threatens the future of GCSEs and A-levels."