Leading Article: Sorry, Mr Balls, no holiday for you

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The Independent Online

As Ed Balls packs his suitcase for his summer holidays, he must be wondering how much time he will have to play with his children and read novels. The Schools Secretary has a full in-tray and plenty of issues to mull over. The SATs debacle is just one of his headaches. Another issue threatening to destabilise the exam system is that more and more schools – including some in the state sector – are preparing to ditch A-levels in favour of the new Cambridge Pre-U exam, to be offered to pupils for the first time in September.

The autumn will throw up a host of new problems with the launch of the Government's specialist diplomas, which – figures show – will be taken by 20,000 youngsters in the first year rather than the 38,000 the Government had originally wanted. Mr Balls's way of dealing with the SATs fiasco and the failure of the American-based firm, ETS Europe, to deliver the national curriculum test results on time has been to heap all blame on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's national curriculum watchdog, and to say that his department has always been "at arm's length" from the problems surrounding the tests.

He will not be able to adopt the same tactic with the problems surrounding the other qualifications. On A-levels, the Government's line is that it is introducing its own reforms to the exam from this September with the new A* grade and harder questions eliciting essay-style answers. That is well and good, but if some state schools are already preparing to ditch A-levels in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U (which offers a return to the more traditional A-level with no coursework), it may be a question of too little, too late.

Then again, the Schools Secretary has a massive job on his hands to persuade parents that their children should do a diploma rather than an A-level. He is a world away from this being the natural progression route for a sixth-former – even though this is what he would like the route to be, as he has said in statements. So, it'll be a challenging autumn for Mr Balls and his team at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to persuade the public that the exam system is in safe hands.

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