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League table peril facing diplomas

Is Charles Worthington, Britain's top hairdresser, worth more than a leading barrister? The answer is probably yes. This simple question and answer goes to the heart of the debate about the value of the new diploma qualifications.

The law, just like hairdressing, is a craft. A law degree is essentially a vocational qualification, albeit with highly traditional knobs on. Hairdressing comes from a humbler background. Until recently, most hairdressers left school with few qualifications and learned their trade on the job.

It is easy to sniff at the government announcement that an advanced diploma in hair and beauty will be worth more than three A-levels. At the root of all this is snobbery and class prejudice. Once, a good education was reserved almost exclusively for children of the professional middle classes and qualifications were designed with them in mind.

But society has moved on. Traditional professions no longer have the same financial pulling-power while new industries like the creative media and IT have taken over. Last year, designer fashion labels were worth more then pound;10 billion to the UK economy.

This is why it is so important to redress the balance between academic and vocational qualifications. It is great that the Government is attempting to improve the esteem of vocational education. Well designed diploma courses leading to good qualifications will motivate many more young people to stay at school or college until at least 18.

The problem about creating qualifications that enjoy genuine parity of esteem is that they must first gain currency "in the market" - in other words with employers and universities. Will taking a diploma in creative media increase a pupil's chance of getting into a good job or university, or not? Will a higher diploma really be of equivalent value to seven GCSEs? These are questions young people will ask and tricky ones for their teachers to answer. Many top universities and employers remain to be convinced. What is more, if it turns out that a "higher" can be done in three days a week, it is likely that parents and pupils will perceive it as base currency.

The real danger is that pupils might be pushed into taking a diploma to boost their schools in the league tables, rather than GCSEs or A-levels. We will have to wait and see whether this laudable attempt to produce a qualifications system fit for the modern age will be a success.

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