Diplomas could become the 'qualification of choice', says the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, raising the prospect they will replace A-levels.
Mr Balls has announced new diplomas in academic subject areas - science, languages and the humanities - for 14-19 year olds in England.
Diplomas, a new type of qualification intended to bridge the divide between academic and vocational learning, are to be initially introduced from next year, in a limited range of vocational subjects.
'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,' said Mr Balls.
The success of diplomas will depend on how they are recognised by employers and universities - and Universities UK stressed that the new qualifications will need to 'genuinely provide an appropriate progression route on to higher education'.
A statement from the Russell Group, representing leading universities, also cautioned that 'we are concerned to ensure that the diploma sufficiently equips candidates with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish on our courses'.
There have already been 14 diploma qualifications announced, with the first five - construction and the built environment, creative and media, engineering, information technology and society, health and development - beginning in autumn 2008.
All of the diploma qualifications will include a basic skills element, in English, maths and information technology.
I had a small role to play in the development of the creative and media diploma, being part of the working party that put it together, writing a report on access to HE that (I hope) was influential, and making a suggestion about the way the curriculum was illustrated in one report that, I gather, helped quite a lot of people make sense of it. (It's a small thing, sure, but probably the most useful thing I did!)
When I started on the project I had my doubts about the idea of a diploma that set in stone from the age of 14 that someone would 'be a designer' - or an actor, a film director, an editor, a radio engineer etc. But when I saw the curriculum I was pleasantly surprised. Unless it's changed since then, it wouldn't mean kids dropping English and History to do art and design (and as I've said before, I think we need more people on design courses who took those subjects instead of art) but would instead mean a much better arts-based curriculum all round.
My big worry remains, however: if your school decides it's going to offer the construction diploma but not the creative and media one, does that mean your chances of entering the latter sector are worsened? It's a bit like schools that 'specialise' in things like IT or (god help us) sport. I can just imagine how happy I would have been as a child if my school had specialised in sport...
So I'm with the Russell Group on this - the qualifications have to be proven before they're taken seriously. In my report to the working group I predicted it would take a lot for art colleges to overcome their usual prejudices for students from the right Foundation Courses and 'feeder colleges', and suggested ways to do it. I hope they took my advice.