The CBI has withdrawn its support from the bolt-on academic Diplomas that Ed Balls added to the vocationally oriented planned qualifications for 14-19 year-olds. It is right to call them an "unnecessary distraction". The government is in severe danger of losing the essence of Diplomas in its confusion about their purpose. Diplomas were originally intended to provide robust vocational and applied qualifications in key economic sectors as a choice for students alongside GCSEs, A levels, apprenticeships and the International Baccalaureate. Instead, they have been turned into a difficult hybrid which makes sense in some subjects, like IT and engineering, but not in others, especially those that may prove more attractive to the young people the government wants to see staying in education or training until 18, where a more practical focus is essential.
Last autumn, Balls starting hinting that the Diplomas might replace everything else by 2013, though he wisely insisted that students would decide. Diplomas in science, humanities and languages were added to the mix. Shortly afterwards - completely missing the point - the Government decided to abandon a modest funding for schools and colleges that wanted to prepare for the IB (which requires a mix of disciplines, unlike Diplomas), although all the signs are that more schools are likely to adopt the IB regardless. But the government failed to address the biggest problem with Diplomas: a lack of clarity about their purpose (as opposed to what they are not). The result is that few expect more than 20,000 - half the government's target - to start Diplomas this autumn. Colleges and employers remain anxious that the practical element so crucial to the new qualifications is being eroded by an obsession with promoting a generic brand rather than each Diploma on its specialist merit. So, it is good that the CBI - which is a firm supporter of the principle behind Diplomas as originally envisaged by Tony Blair - has come out with its statement today. Any other supporters of Diplomas who want them to succeed should speak up now before it is too late to get them back on track.