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Best of both worlds in one exam

Gareth Pierce is chief executive of the WJEC

It seems that in our devolved government, education policymakers are uncertain about taking a particular direction before seeing how similar policies pan out in England.

Even when the experiences of our neighbours become known, caution is needed before following suit - especially when an interesting development doesn't quite match the route Wales is taking.

Take the specialised diplomas, which have been hailed in England as the key initiative to transform 14-19 vocational provision. Wales intends to explore the possibility of including elements of the diploma within the Welsh baccalaureate framework from September 2009.

It is reassuring that the idea is to be explored within the bac framework, rather than separately. An important selling point of the diploma is that each of the 14 different vocational lines of learning will have been significantly influenced and signed off by the relevant sector skills council (SSC), through their key roles within diploma development partnerships.

This is an early example of the growing influence of the UK-wide SSCs, recommended by the Leitch review, and Wales can learn an important lesson from the diploma development process. But learning providers and awarding bodies must also be involved as equal partners with SSCs from the outset to avoid any problems later on.

All this sets an interesting context for the work which needs to be done in Wales to shape a diploma offering routes available within the bac.

First up will be a size challenge - how does a "diploma within bac" become a manageable programme of learning which secures the twin benefits of Wales's learning core entitlement plus the sector credibility of the vocationally specific "principal learning" elements of the diploma?

The structure must avoid duplication between the core and principal learning. The demands of the diploma's "project" can clearly serve as a substitute for the "individual investigation" of the bac.

Flexibility is another challenge, especially at age 14. It is a major commitment for a young person to decide that a large part of their overall learning programme will be sector specific, especially if it is difficult later to switch to a different line.

Much could be gained by making the diploma development process in Wales more cross-sector to allow flexibility and ease of transition between vocational routes, at least at levels 1 and 2 (GCSE equivalents).

Reducing the risk of being tied to the wrong choice would also make the vocational routes more attractive.

The third challenge involves resources. It is intended that diploma teaching staff will have excellent sector knowledge and experience, coupled with access to relevant equipment and technology.

It should be no different in Wales. Our progress in the skills agenda depends on the highest possible quality of delivery across vocational and general learning pathways at 14-19.

With Wales free to take a slightly different route in key skills, rather than the functional skills for the diploma in England, now is the time for vocational sector interests to come together.

With the early involvement of learning providers and awarding bodies, the bac can be promoted as serving the best interests of our young people and employers.

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