Just as politicians' latest effort to end the divide between academic and vocational learning is faltering, up springs a new qualification that may change the landscape. The vocational version of the international baccalaureate will be available in British schools from 2011 and may succeed in plugging a gap that has bedevilled English education for decades.
Its arrival is hard on the heels of news that the Government's new diplomas have attracted around 12,000 pupils in their first year compared with the expected 50,000. Only just over 3,000 of these are over 16 or pupils whose alternative is A-level, which attracts 270,000 candidates. Early days, say its supporters, but doubts remain.
Independent schools have refused to sign up for the new order. Without the blessing of schools that educate a fifth of sixth-formers, the prospects for the diploma as a qualification for all look bleak. Already, the Conservatives have scorned the recently-announced "academic" diplomas designed to persuade the bright they are for them.
By contrast, they have welcomed the new IB career-related certificate, an add-on to other vocational qualifications. So have headteachers' leaders. Independent schools rate the IB highly and one of them is pioneering the certificate. A group of state schools is also interested. Parity of esteem, which has proved so elusive since it was first applauded 15 years ago by Prime Minister John Major, has taken a step forward.
No teacher, of course, would have started from here. The profession backed the single, over-arching qualification recommended by Mike Tomlinson.
We support the diplomas because schools need a credible alternative to A-level for thousands of pupils who have a more practical bent. Many leave education at 16. Teachers will do their best to make the diplomas work and The TES has reported exciting changes already taking place. But they remain the second-best option.
The career-related version of the IB may turn out to be just another exam alongside A-levels, the IB, the Pre-U and the diplomas that will bewilder parents and annoy employers still further. If it succeeds, however, it will give the lie to the argument that changes to A-level will lower standards and threaten rigour and will challenge one of the most damaging divisions in our educational system. We wish it well.