Diplomas to be made more academic

The highest level of diplomas will be worth four and a half A-levels, the government announced today.

The move, which extends the diploma’s value by one whole A-level, comes as the government is under pressure to prove the academic vigour of its new qualifications.

Extended diplomas are due to come into force in 2011 but universities have expressed scepticism in advance that pupils will not be prepared for degree courses.

Ministers have insisted extended diplomas, which will provisionally run alongside A-levels, will stretch the most able pupils, with a “strengthened core” of English and maths as well as scope for individual in-depth research.

Schools secretary Ed Balls said: “Diplomas will be crucial in addressing long-standing gaps in our education system and in bridging the pernicious academic and vocational divide.

“The extended diploma will ensure there is a diploma option to recognise the full achievements of all students.

“It could appeal to those teenagers who currently study at least four A-levels, for example.”

Some 800 schools and 150 colleges will begin teaching diplomas this September.

Initially they will be targeted at 14-year-olds, offering vocation-based qualifications in construction and the built environment, creative and media, engineering, information technology, society, health and development.

Eventually diplomas will be offered to pupils of all abilities from 14 to 19 years old and Mr Balls has said he hopes they will become the “qualification of choice”.

This has created doubt about the future of A levels, with ministers refusing to confirm the traditional “gold-standard” qualification.

But while the Conservatives are calling on the government to guarantee A-levels will remain, teaching leaders have raised concerns about the practicalities of running two qualification streams.

David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, warned the government was going to create a “a ghastly complex qualifications maze that few pupils and parents will be able to navigate through”.

He called on the government to create a single new diploma to include GCSEs and A levels.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has also called for an umbrella diploma which would bring GCSEs and A levels within the new diploma structure.

ASCL general secretary Dr John Dunford said: “There is huge uncertainty among schools as to whether they can deliver 17 diplomas, each at three levels – that is 51 different courses – plus, at the same time, continue to offer a wide range of GCSEs and A levels.

“The secretary of state has said that it will be for the market to decide whether A levels survive. This is not a good basis for schools’ and colleges’ long-term planning. The general diploma would create a secure, stable situation in which different qualifications can co-exist.”