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Vital diploma programme must not be allowed to fail

So the new guard of Ed Balls and John Denham has given its blessing to 14-19 diplomas and ended any doubt about the new regime's commitment to the agenda.

The cynics and pessimists will argue that it will take more than a photo opportunity to sort out the problems with diplomas. They point out that universities are not yet accepting the academic validity of diplomas, that employers are not convinced of their practical worth, and that some schools have signalled their preference for sticking with Btecs.

There has also been grumbling about the arbitrary nature of the "gateway" process for selecting the first pilots to implement the diplomas. Rural consortia say they will not be able to offer all the diploma lines of learning. Then there are the challenges of training teachers, building new training facilities and organising common prospectuses, timetables, ICT and transport.

The optimists will reply that the problems are overstated. Diplomas are on line to be accredited by the end of July. That in turn will provide the trigger for engagement from vice-chancellors and admissions tutors. Professional bodies and big employers are buying into both the concept and content of the diploma agenda. A total of 145 consortia (about a third of the likely eventual total) got through Gateway 1, and there will be 40,000 diploma places from September next year. Gateway 2 will open up the diplomas to many more consortia.

The optimists will also point to the recently announced transfer of 16-19 funding to local authorities and argue that this will bring a coherent single source of capital funding to support implementation. They will highlight the detailed partnership planning between schools, colleges and training providers that is developing fast in many areas. And they will explain how training related to the new functional skills programmes is well in hand.

So who is right the pessimists or the optimists? A realistic assessment would probably conclude that the truth lies somewhere in between. Some of the problems have been hyped, but there is still a mountain to climb if the new diplomas are to be taught and implemented well and command confidence across the system.

Realism would also add another dimension to the debate: we cannot afford for the diploma initiative to fail. The Leitch report, commissioned by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, showed all too graphically the investment and commitment the country needs to make to improving the skills of our young people not just for their sake but so that UK plc can continue to enjoy a thriving, competitive economy.

We know that making participation in education and training compulsory for 16 to 18-year-olds is not by itself enough. Unless we have the right curriculum, courses and training pathways, compulsion will be an irrelevance rather than a platform for improving skill levels and life chances.

So realistically we have no option but to make a success of 14-19 diplomas. The irony is that success will complicate, not simplify, the post-16 qualifications jungle. Depending on where they live and the school they attend, students will have to navigate their way through reformed A-levels, the international baccalaureate, the Pre-U being introduced by Cambridge university, apprenticeships, Btecs and, of course, diplomas. In some cases, the choices for young people will be clear but in others particularly where they want to pick and mix options making sense of it all will be a nightmare. And whether there can ever be parity of esteem for vocational attainment in such an "unjoined up" and academically weighted system remains doubtful.

So, while we should not expect Messrs Balls and Denham to revisit Mike Tomlinson's report any time soon, we should continue to argue for an integrated 14-19 qualifications system being part of the post-general election agenda.

Robert Hill is a former special adviser to Tony Blair and now a consultant on public policy issues

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