Leading Article: Balls must explain diplomas properly

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Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, must be hoping his words of encouragement for the Government's flagship new diplomas do not return to haunt him. At the launch of the programme for 17 new diplomas, he was rash enough to say they could become the natural route for teenagers to progress through, thus replacing A-levels. Four weeks away from the first offering of the diplomas in schools, it looks like a rash prediction. The number of students taking them from this September has been scaled down from 50,000 to 20,000, the CBI has withdrawn its support from the three academic diplomas in science, humanities and languages which Mr Balls added to the programme and teachers' leaders argue that their members still do not know how to teach them or what their purpose is.

The government response is to say that those involved in September's diploma launch are quite clear about their purpose. But it acknowledges that more work needs to be done to bring the whole of the profession and all parents up to speed. That is all right as far as it goes. But with such a major reform of the qualifications system, it would have been better to make sure that everyone was au fait with the diplomas as soon as possible. Yet the National Union of Teachers is arguing that teachers' understanding of what is involved in the diplomas is patchy. It is therefore requesting a delay in implementing the second phase of the programme – when five more diplomas are added to the five launched next month – so that a proper evaluation of this year's pathfinder diplomas can take place. The union has a point.

Too often, governments have steamrollered through reforms at breakneck speed, leaving teachers, students and parents floundering in their wake. Witness Curriculum 2000 and the reform of A-levels. We would not have wanted the reform to be introduced in this way, because we preferred the model proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, for an overarching diploma covering both academic and vocational education. However, the diplomas crafted by Mr Balls are the only show in town now and it behoves ministers to be careful to get them right for the sake of the pupils.