A fundamental change is taking place in secondary education in the UK. From September 2008, 14 to 19-year-olds will be able to study for diplomas that blend general education with applied learning. There will be five diplomas available, one of which is in IT.
The bar is being set very high for this new qualification. To succeed, the diploma must meet employer needs for young people with a broad range of knowledge and skills, including a solid grounding in maths and English.
It must meet the needs of higher education and higher-order skills such as critical analysis and problem solving.
And last, but definitely not least, it must meet the aspirations of a wide range of young people - from students preparing for the most demanding university courses to those planning to enter the workforce directly.
Win hearts and minds
Introducing a major new qualification into an established education system is not easy. It will take time to win the hearts and minds of young people, their parents and teachers. They will want to see that the qualification is respected and credible.
There is a very real need for these diplomas. With the emphasis on education in the context of a key business sector, the diplomas will help to prepare young people with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the global employment market.
Of course, there is much more to education than preparing young people for university or a job. Diplomas will have the flexibility to accommodate personal choice and interest. For example, the IT diploma will enable students to take GCSEs and A-levels in subjects as diverse as languages, science or music.
The diplomas have immense potential, but to succeed they need an unprecedented partnership between schools, employers and higher education.
The IT diploma focuses on technology in a business context, which differs significantly from existing GCSEs and A-levels in ICT and computing. This has implications for schools and colleges in terms of staff training and teaching materials.
Employers have a vital role to play in helping schools to prepare for and deliver diplomas to the highest standards. At a local level, this means support for work experience and work-related learning. At a national level, there needs to be sector-wide involvement of employers to create inspiring, relevant resources for students and teachers.
In the long run, the IT diploma will help to address the UK's IT skills gaps and shortages by attracting more young people to technology and ensuring they have the skills to add real value in a global economy.
The UK holds the blueprint for a world-class qualification. If everyone - employers, higher education, government, schools and colleges - puts their full weight behind the development and delivery of diplomas, we can make it a reality.
Karen Price is chief executive of sector skills council E-Skills UK
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This was first published in October 2006