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Potential bonanza for exam firm

Britain's only privatised exam board has fired the first shot in the battle for a share of the lucrative new market in vocational qualifications.

Following the proposed shake-up of secondary education, from 2008, every pupil in Britain will get the chance to study new vocational diplomas in five subjects. These will include information and communications technology and health and social care.

Now Edexcel has teamed up with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust to support schools which want to pilot a possible precursor to the new courses. Secondaries are being encouraged to offer Edexcel's Btec (Business Training and Education Council) vocational courses, alongside academic GCSEs, to pupils who might do a vocational diploma in future.

For example, the board says, in ICT, a student could take Edexcel's new vocational diploma in digital applications, which is worth four GCSEs, alongside GCSEs in English, maths, science and other subjects.

Bob Osborne, an Edexcel director, said that support materials were being sent to schools to help them enrich teaching. He said: "We are using existing qualifications and doing all we can to integrate these into a coherent programme of study for students."

For example, schools would be given advice on how to teach English or maths in a vocational context, to help pupils in both their Btec courses and their GCSEs.

Or, where a pupil takes a Btec in construction, the trust will work with schools to emphasise teaching of aspects of science and maths which are useful both to the Btec and maths and science GCSEs.

The trust will provide advice to secondary managers and heads of departments on how to plan programmes of study.

It is already trialling the new arrangements with 20 schools and is seeking 100 pilot schools by next September.

Mr Osborne said it was possible that this type of qualification would be the basis for the new diplomas. That might be an easy option for ministers and employers who face a race to develop the new courses within two years.

However, ministers have promised that the diplomas will "transform"

vocational education. Any move simply to rebadge existing exams would be greeted with scepticism by some educationists.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham university, said he was concerned that employers were not sufficiently involved in the Btecs' development for them to be seen as truly vocational.

The danger was that they would therefore not provide clear routes into employment. Ministers would need to address this issue in designing the new diplomas.

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