Leading Article: Too soon to back away from the Bac

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The Independent Online

The Government's decision to streamline the number of qualifications available to young people should be welcomed. At present, there are about 6,500 qualifications – largely vocational – for them to choose from, but two-thirds of them attract fewer than 100 candidates a year. Indeed, some, such as cake decorating, do not attract any.

It therefore makes sense to weed out the courses and give the students of tomorrow a choice of the traditional GCSE/A-level route, the new diplomas, or apprenticeships underpinned with basic skills qualifications. Well-established qualifications like BTec and City and Guilds are to be subsumed by the new diplomas in the kind of arrangement that Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, would have approved of.

However, there is a danger that ministers may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When the document outlining the reforms was published on Monday, it emerged that the Government was reneging on a pledge given by Tony Blair 18 months ago to ensure that at least one school or college in every local authority offered the International Baccalaureate. Moreover, Jim Knight, the schools minister, conceded that it was possible a review to be conducted in 2013 would conclude that the IB should no longer be funded by the Government – making it extremely unlikely that state schools would offer it.

The rationale for the change of tack seems to be that the new diplomas – strengthened by Schools Secretary Ed Balls to include a compulsory extended project or thesis-style essay – will have a strong and broad enough content to serve as an alternative to the IB. We hope the Government will keep an open mind on this. The diplomas are untried and untested, despite the bolstering they receive with every government pronouncement.

Ministers are now saying that they could be the main route to a qualification for tomorrow's sixth-formers, replacing A-levels, and that they could be a better alternative than the IB. Ministers might be better off holding their tongues. It would be wonderful if we did end up with a catch-all qualification appealing to both academically inclined and vocationally inclined teenagers. But we are not there yet, and the jury is still out on the diplomas.