Monday 29 October 2007

Will Diplomas replace A levels?

There has been a flurry of briefing to liberal commentators after Tuesday's announcement of three new Diplomas. Some are being told that, by announcing the new Diplomas in humanities, science, and languages to complement the existing set of more vocational subjects, ministers have shown a remarkable skill and courage that contrasts hugely with their predecessors' supposed timidity. The most excitable of these is Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian, who seems not to know what was planned for Diplomas before July 2007 - or that Alan Johnson had already sensibly decided that Engineering would be their flagship; nor does she understand that Diplomas are not the same as A-levels, in that they require about 40% of their time on practical tasks; therefore, leaving it to the market means Diplomas are unlikely to replace A-levels. Steve Richards in the Independent clearly enjoyed the same briefing.

Mike Tomlinson understandably hopes that Diplomas will recreate his original vision for change, and has more thoughtful reflections in the Sunday Times, whereas Chris Woodhead seems to believe that A levels are on the way out and doesn't like it, describing Diplomas uncharitably as 'ridiculous'. Mike Baker sets things in good context, but probably shares Tomlinson's ambition. But a note of caution - the first of many, I suspect - is struck in today's Times with Richard Levin, President of Yale University urging us to keep A-levels.

If Diplomas do - through the market - come out on top, well and good. But as I argued in the Guardian last week, there is room for both - and for apprenticeships and the IB - and it is likely that the market (through students exercising choice) will be much better able to recognise the differences between these qualifications and their respective merits than some commentators. Which is what Tony Blair always expected, as it happens. Given that as few as 10,000 students have signed up for Diplomas to date, fans of the new qualification need to get on with selling its merits, rather than worrying about what might happen in 2013.

16.30 UPDATE: And to be fair to Ed Balls, that is exactly what he has been doing today.

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