Employers want new vocational qualifications to develop aptitudes that are relevant to the workplace. Warwick Mansell reports
Hundreds of thousands of pupils are likely to be graded on their ability to meet deadlines, use business English and work in teams in the biggest shake-up of England's exams system for decades.
Employers given their first chance to set the agenda on reform of a major cross-curricular qualification are laying down tough standards of what they want from young people in new vocational diplomas.
The qualifications, which will be introduced within two years, will emphasise the 3Rs, with post-16 students potentially facing assessments in their use of English in a business environment. But the diplomas are also likely to recognise softer skills that are not assessed by GCSEs and A-levels.
Diploma students could be given credit for their performance in music exams, sporting achievements, enterprise competitions, the Duke of Edinburgh award and volunteer work.
Pupils at all diploma levels will be expected to complete cross-curricular research projects, in contrast to GCSEs and A-levels in which traditional coursework is being phased out in many subjects.
Outlines of the first five diplomas - in IT, engineering, creative and media, health and social care, and construction and the built environment - are emerging after six months of consultation with industry.
Some 2,000 employers have been involved in working groups which have drawn up detailed draft plans of what should be included in the new courses.
Exam boards will now spend a year developing the details of the courses before they are sent to schools and colleges in September next year.
Teaching for each of the first five diplomas will begin in September 2008, but only in schools and colleges which have applied and been approved to trial the new courses.
By 2010, 14 diplomas will be on trial in some schools and colleges in subjects that will include retail, hospitality and catering and manufacturing.
Ministers say that by 2013 every pupil in England can demand to be taught any of the new courses.
Teresa Bergin, head of diplomas at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is overseeing their development, said they heralded a "different approach to teaching and learning".
Although compulsory functional skills tests will be central to the qualifications, she said pupils would also be given the chance to focus on areas in which they have particular interests.
She said: "Employers have a very clear notion that they need skills of inquiry, problem-solving and the ability to work with others. These will be central to the diplomas."
Ian Ferguson, founder of the computer software firm Data Connection and a QCA board member, said it was a shame that GCSEs and A-levels were not being reformed on the diploma model to put more emphasis on cross-curricular skills.
The diplomas' development presents some major challenges. For example, schools will have to work with colleges to enable all the subjects to be offered.
There are also questions about how the diplomas will be assessed, the schedule for their design - which is likely to be extremely tight - how much money schools and colleges will receive to offer them to students, and making sure teachers are sufficiently well-trained to teach them.