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Leading article: The downside of diplomas

Employers were among the earliest groups to complain that the national curriculum gave school-leavers exam-answering knowledge that did not translate into practical basics. They were particularly concerned about English and maths. Their plea seemed to have been heard when the Blair government put its weight behind diplomas.

Now, in demanding a return to the drawing board, the employers' organisation, the CBI, seems to be biting the hand that promised to feed it. Instead of developing diplomas, the CBI wants government efforts to focus on improving standards of GCSEs and A-levels.

Like so many of the education reforms introduced or proposed by the Government, diplomas have had a rocky ride. This is only partly because of the education establishment's resistance to change. It is also because diplomas have meant different things to different ministers. They appeared first as a centrepiece of the Tomlinson review, when they were a school-leaving qualification that would contain within it evidence of academic and vocational achievement. This seemed a sensible idea – which was promptly rejected.

There was subsequently a plan for diplomas in vocational subjects only, which pupils could obtain in parallel with GCSEs and A-levels. This, though, fell foul of the Government's long-standing ambition to accord vocational and non-vocational qualifications equal value. So when Ed Balls took over the department, he proposed that diplomas should be awarded in traditional academic subjects as well. Crucially, he also said that the diplomas and A-levels should exist side by side, and compete to become the qualification of the future.

It is this new twist to which the CBI takes exception. Employers, like many education traditionalists, see diplomas in disciplines such as languages and science as potentially "dumbing down" the curriculum. And while the initial idea was that diplomas would gain ground to the point where they became the qualification of choice, the reverse now seems more likely to happen. The new diplomas would become second-class qualifications, simply entrenching A-levels as the "gold standard".

The CBI's intervention leaves ministers in a quandary. Clearly, the national curriculum has been found wanting. And diplomas, which once seemed part of the solution, increasingly look like part of the problem. Yet companies, big and small, are crying out for a reliable paper qualification that testifies to the attainment of basic skills, such as command of English, functional ability in another language, proficiency in basic maths, computer literacy etc. Perhaps this is what ministers should consider if they are forced to start again.