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Smiling Kelly tries to charm

If Ruth Kelly was nervous about speaking to school leaders on qualifications reform for the first time since facing derision at the Secondary Heads Association conference in March, she certainly was not showing it.

Taking the stage at the start of a London conference on 14-19 change, the Education Secretary beamed and told assembled heads: "It's really, really good for me to be with you today."

The aim was to end months of ill-feeling and confusion over the Government's reaction to the Tomlinson report that had recommended replacing GCSEs and A-levels with a new diploma system that combined the academic and vocational.

Having been condemned in the spring for ignoring Tomlinson's wishes and retaining academic exams alongside the new vocational diplomas, Ms Kelly now wants heads to rally behind the reforms and ensure the new qualifications work.

Her other goal is to clear up confusion over where the Government actually stands on A-levels. Ministers appear to have been backpedalling ever since February's white paper, leaving open the possibility that academic exams could be subsumed into the diploma from 2008.

Ms Kelly did all she could to insist that this would not happen. Reforms to the A-level, designed to stretch able students, would be trialled from next year, with a review in 2008.

But A-levels and GCSEs were not being scrapped. They would stay as "free-standing" qualifications alongside 14 new vocational diplomas.

And the reaction? Polite applause.

Afterwards, some heads welcomed her drive to work with them on reform. Off the record, though, others were scathing, repeating fears that the vocational diplomas will be second-class qualifications, preserving the snobbery against job-related learning. One said: "I feel the diploma is not going to be worth anything and that won't help disaffected pupils."

And confusion remains. The Daily Telegraph reported that A-levels could be merged into a general diploma within five years. Ms Kelly ruled this out.

Some of the heat may have been taken out of this debate, but Ms Kelly is still struggling to win over the profession.

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