John Dunford: These new diplomas won't be second best

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Contrary to what many newspapers would have us believe, the three new diplomas announced last week do not mean the end of A-level and GCSE. The number of A-level and GCSE subjects has grown substantially in the past 10 years and there are many subjects, such as accounting, economics, music or sports studies, that do not fit easily under the headings of humanities, sciences or languages, the headings of the new diplomas. People will study them outside the diploma structure. It will also be possible to take A-levels or GCSEs within the structure of the diploma as additional learning components.

The most important aspect of the new diploma proposals is not whether they replace A-levels or GCSEs, but what they tell us about the diploma. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, does not want vocational courses to continue to be second best to academic studies. Like Sir Mike Tomlinson, who produced his report on the future of 14 to 19 qualifications in 2004, and many other educationists and employers, the Secretary of State wants to raise the esteem of vocational qualifications, if not to parity with academic studies, then at least to the same division.

Tomlinson's proposals would have subsumed A-levels and GCSEs into the diploma. Balls, however, has put the diplomas alongside the traditional qualifications, so that their status is raised. The new diplomas are a step in the direction of parity of esteem between the academic and the vocational.

They are also a step on the road towards a coherent, unified system of qualifications, from which 14- and 16-year-olds will make a choice of course. Only by making all these courses worthwhile – and seen to be of similar status – will the Government persuade all young people to stay in full-time education or training until the age of 18, on which we can expect a draft Bill in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

A little-noticed part of Ed Balls' announcement was his decision to scrap the 2008 review of A-levels, which had been promised by the former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly in her half-hearted response to the Tomlinson report. The real driver behind the decision in early 2005 to keep A-levels and GCSEs separate from the diplomas was not Kelly, but Tony Blair who, when shown the Tomlinson recommendations, decided that middle Britain would want A-levels to be retained.

Kelly's successor, Alan Johnson, was clearly worried about the viability of the two-tier system that he had inherited and said at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference in 2006 that it "could go horribly wrong". That was not a risk that Ed Balls or Gordon Brown could afford to take if their plan to raise the number of young people staying on after 16 was to succeed.

Crucially, the CBI were not only won over to Balls' proposals, but agreed to host the conference at which they were announced.

Perhaps an even more important part of the consensus around the new diplomas were the Russell Group universities, including the head of admissions at Cambridge, Dr Geoff Parks, who said that the new diplomas being planned in science and engineering could provide a better grounding in mathematics and science for students wanting to study those subjects at university.

That will surely act as a wake-up call to the independent schools, which have hitherto stood by and watched the development of the diplomas with little intention to participate. Now that these three new diplomas have been announced, they are unlikely to remain outside the tent for long.

One welcome side-effect of the new diplomas could be the burial of the Cambridge Pre-U alternative to A-level, the qualification being piloted in some independent schools that prefer a more traditional approach to sixth-form education.

Expert groups of employers, university, college and school staff will do the detailed work on the new diplomas and only then will we know how radical an alternative they will be. In the meantime, Ed Balls has adopted the right principles. In due course, he will need to extract from the Treasury the funds that will be required if every young person is to be able to choose – as the Government intends – from 17 different diplomas, each at three levels, delivered in new partnerships of schools and colleges.

With so much at stake, it might be sensible to pause after the second cohort of diplomas has started in 2009 and take stock for a year before the final run towards full implementation begins. There is too much at stake to get it wrong – for the Government, employers, universities, schools and colleges, but especially for the young people themselves.

The writer is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders