Colleges feel quality before quantity is best way to introduce qualification
Further education colleges and the main lecturers' union have been attempting to play down the lower than expected take-up of the new 14-19 diplomas starting in the autumn, with the Association of Colleges (AoC) saying the latest figures should not be a cause for concern.
Just 20,000 teenagers - a little over half the expected number of 38,000 - will study towards the qualifications from September.
But both colleges and schools have been struggling to prepare for the new courses, which aim to lend equal status to vocational and academic learning, and regard the low numbers as something of a blessing.
Maggie Scott, director of quality at the AoC, said: "It's a case of quality over quantity. The greatest curriculum reform for a generation should be introduced with care and will not depend on high numbers in the first year. Colleges want to lead their partnerships to ensure their expertise is used from the start to create a high quality, new, successful qualification."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Smaller numbers may not be a bad thing at this point, as this always was a challenging timetable.
"This may allow more time for the necessary workforce awareness and development."
Even Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, insists he wanted diplomas to "evolve naturally", and never intended a "big bang" at the beginning.
The introduction of diplomas, the biggest change to the qualifications system in the past 20 years, is seen as a public relations challenge as they prove their worth alongside traditional qualifications, and also as an administrative one as colleges prepare for a new style of course.
The diplomas aim at providing continuity for teenagers between compulsory and post-16 education, and lending equal status to vocational and academic learning.
They will be offered by half of colleges initially, and expected to increase to nine in 10 colleges in September 2009 as the qualification settles alongside traditional A-levels - whose long-term future is still to be decided - and GCSEs.
Ms Scott said: "The retention of existing qualifications is a much needed safeguard until the diplomas have become recognised by parents, employers, and higher education, but the AoC and colleges can see the point at which A-levels, Btec Nationals and other qualifications might be placed under the diploma umbrella."
Ms Hunt said: "Lecturers are hoping that, for those students taking diplomas, this will be a worthwhile learning experience."
Sir Mike Tomlinson, whose review of 14-19 education led to the diplomas' creation, said: "It's only a few short months now before the first diploma students start their studies, and begin to consign to history the artificial divide between academic and vocational subjects, which does not make sense in today's world.
"There is a long road ahead for the diploma but I am sure it is right to put quality first from the start."