The Government must help schools seize a never-to-be-repeated chance to provide decent vocational courses to a new generation of pupils, heads said this week.
Early details of the first of a new breed of specialised diplomas suggest their standards are being set high, with a promise to recognise hard-to-assess skills such as teamworking and inquiry.
But schools and colleges have warned a host of issues, including providing properly qualified staff to teach the new courses, had to be ironed out quickly if they were to be a success.
The diplomas, described by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as the most important reforms taking place anywhere in the world, are being introduced for 14 to 19-year-olds in England from 2008. For the first time in the development of a new vocational qualification, employers are taking the lead on what skills young people should have. Schools will have to work with their neighbours and local colleges to make sure that all the courses are available to their pupils. Diplomas are to be offered, initially, in five subject areas: engineering, health and social care, creative and media, construction and information technology.
By 2010, 14 subjects will be on offer in some parts of the country. By 2013, every pupil in England will have the right to study any of them. The diplomas will be at three levels: an introductory level one, level two (GCSE grades A*-C equivalent) and level three, mainly for the over-16s.
Industry representatives in the five subject areas have spent the past six months visiting workplaces to find out what the diplomas should look like.
Drafts of the new courses are about to be passed to exam boards for final development over the next year. (For details of what they are likely to include see box, below.) The employers' groups, known as diploma development partnerships, are setting themselves very high standards.
The engineering diploma is designed to be "an inspirational, forward-looking training programme that provides learners with leading-edge industry thinking - a completely new approach".
All diplomas are meant to lead students to university. The draft IT course says success at level 3 will provide high-flying students with a passport to Britain's most prestigious undergraduate courses.
But the timescale for the diplomas' development is tight. Schools and colleges have until the end of this month to volunteer to be the first to offer the new courses from 2008. However, as the diplomas are still in draft form, there are concerns that few will be in a position to make a reasoned judgement as to whether or not to apply.
Maggie Scott, director of learning and quality at the Association of Colleges, said anyone wanting to offer diplomas from the outset would have to take a "leap of faith" in deciding to volunteer now. She said: "There is not a lot of information out there as to what will be in the diploma specifications."
Schools and colleges in 39 local authorities have been named as "pathfinder" partnerships and will share pound;15 million to investigate aspects of the diplomas over the next two years. All have extensive experience of working together to offer joint provision for 14 to 19-year-olds.
But Ms Scott said there might not be enough other partnerships in England to make the diplomas available nationally from 2008.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We are supportive of this agenda, but there are many questions which need answering if the diploma is to be successfully implemented."
He said the Government might be biting off more than it can chew in promising an entitlement for every pupil to be able to study any of the 14 diplomas by 2013.
The fact that no school or college would be able to teach all the diplomas, meaning pupils were likely to have to travel for some lessons, would make it very tricky to offer in rural areas without pupils spending a long time on buses, he said.
It was also not clear that all schools, even new ones being developed under the Building Schools for the Future programme, could accommodate specific work-related facilities.
The new courses would demand high levels of work-related expertise from those who will teach them, he said. And there was a danger that the assessment of the diplomas would be overly complex and bureaucratic.
There seems consensus among those involved in the diplomas that the stakes are high. They are widely seen as the last opportunity to get vocational learning right, after decades of botched reforms.
Ms Scott said: "This is the biggest curriculum development for 20 years. We have got to get this right."
WHEN THE TRIALS START
1 Information technology
2 Health and social care
4 Creative and media
5 Construction and the built environment
6 Land-based and environmental
8 Hair and beauty
9 Business administration and finance
10 Hospitality and catering
11 Public services
12 Sport and leisure
14 Travel and tourism