New diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds could become the "jewel of the education system" and a key university entry qualification, schools secretary Ed Balls said this week, writes Melanie Newman.
But he confirmed that A levels are to stay at least until 2013, when a review of the qualification will take place, instead of 2008 as originally planned.
The first five diplomas - in construction, media, engineering, IT and society - will be offered as an alternative to GCSE and A levels to nearly 40,000 pupils in 900 schools from next September, and nine others will be introduced over the next three years.
Announcing plans this week for additional diplomas in the traditional "academic" areas of science, languages and humanities, Mr Balls said: "If diplomas are successfully introduced and are delivering the mix that employers and universities value, they could become the qualification of choice for young people.
Mr Balls acknowledged the argument that diplomas would only succeed if A levels were no longer offered as stand-alone qualifications. Many educationists hoped that the planned review in 2008 would spell the end of A levels. But Mr Balls confirmed that the 2008 review would be put back to 2013.
"We need to have time to consider the success of our diplomas and assess how far the changes we have already made to A levels and GCSEs have strengthened these qualifications," he said.
David Laws, Liberal Democrat Shadow Schools Secretary, said the delay in the A levels review might "reflect Government anxiety on how successful the diplomas (would) be. There is widespread scepticism in schools about whether they will be popular among students".
Plans to encourage employers to help meet the cost of degree courses are proving successful in early pilots, according to the Higher Education Funding Council For England.
Figures given to The Times Higher by Hefce show that the equivalent of 2,797 full-time employer-co-funded student places have been allocated so far to 17 institutions for 2008-09, with employers contributing an average of 34 per cent of the cost, totalling 5,000 new students.
At a recent conference held by the Higher Education Policy Institute, David Eastwood, chief executive of Hefce, said contributions from employers ranged from 20 to 70 per cent.
"We were told by the silent voices that it would never happen, that employers would never pay," he said. But he revealed that one vice- chancellor had been approached by an employer asking whether he could deliver a programme to 14,000 learners.
He joked: "This caused the vice-chancellor heart failure, but we are working with that institution to see what this would mean.