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Diplomas face market test

Biggest change in secondary exams since 1986 will challenge traditional A-levels.As ministers launched a campaign to make diplomas the "qualification of choice" for teenagers, The TES can reveal that as few as 10,000 students, or one in 120, could sign up for the first wave of work-related courses next year.

This week Ed Balls expanded the range of diplomas to embrace almost all subjects from 2011. The new exams, which now include such academic subjects as science, languages and humanities, prompted press reports that GCSEs and A-levels face the axe.

But early signs of reluctance to take up the new exams, revealed by a senior source at one of the big three exam boards, shows that reports of the imminent death of the so-called gold standard examination may be exaggerated.

Since taking office, Mr Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has been concerned about diplomas. This followed a school visit where he encountered anxiety among staff about the courses. And while he sought to give them a boost this week, his solution is for the market to decide which exam will stand or fall. He has now put back a review of A-levels to 2013.

The diplomas herald the biggest change in secondary exams since the introduction of GCSEs in 1986. They are designed to reflect the requirements of 21st century workplaces: courses range from web design to using mechanics to solve engineering problems.

Most teacher unions said the academic diplomas will improve the standing of the new courses, which will be available to all 14- to 19-year-olds in England in 17 subjects within six years. Big firms including Vodafone and Microsoft and leading universities such as Leeds, Exeter and Warwick have come out as supporters.

But, the exam board source said schools have so far expressed little interest. The new courses were proving a "hard sell" at parents' evenings when teachers discuss them with students.

In 2005, the Government said that up to 50,000 pupils would take the diplomas next year. A figure of 10,000, over the two year groups of Years 10 and 12, would represent one student in 120 taking diplomas in 2008.

Writing in today's TES, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the logistics of developing the new examination system were frightening.

Peter Hawthorne, leading the development of diplomas in Wolverhampton, seen as a model for others, said the challenges facing it were daunting. The most serious was how to integrate work experience into learning when local employers were often in short supply.

Full reports, pages 16-17

Leading article, page 28.

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