Leading article: Exam review must come earlier

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The Independent Online

The announcement by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, of a new "super diploma" to beef up the academic content of the Government's flagship new qualification is muddying the waters rather than clearing them. Ostensibly, it is a move to strengthen the appeal of the diplomas because it makes them equivalent to four and a half A-levels. It has clearly been prompted by a desire to make the diplomas look more attractive than A-levels. Ultimately no doubt Balls hopes to see the traditional "gold standard" exam wither on the vine as young people opt for the new qualification.

The trouble is that it presents teachers with a dilemma in the options that they present to their pupils. At the same time that the diplomas are becoming more academic, there are moves afoot by the exam boards to put more of a vocational focus on A-level results by including applied GCEs – deemed to be worth an A-level each and including subjects such as leisure and tourism and health and social care. If the two qualifications are moving towards a more consensual view of what should be offered to every pupil, how on earth is a teacher to make up his or her mind as to which would be suitable for a pupil to follow?

The answer will probably be that most will stick to the devil they know despite all the sweeteners from Balls's office to lure them to a contrary decision. In that event, the diplomas run the risk of being a disastrous failure. It would have been far better to have followed the recommendation of the inquiry by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, that there should be an over-arching diploma to cover both vocational qualifications and the more academic GCSEs and A-levels.

The Government is committed to reviewing the qualifications on offer to secondary school pupils in 2013, the year that the diplomas should be fully up and running. It might be argued that 2013 would be too late to go back to Tomlinson but it is equally true that it is too late to make any meaningful decision about a change. Why doesn't the Government bring forward the review to a date when it could sensibly revisit the major recommendation of the Tomlinson inquiry?

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