What future for diplomas?

21 Oct 2008 Public Finance

Bridging the divide, by Mike Baker

Will the new diplomas keep more young people at school and improve general skills levels or will their jack-of-all-trades nature prove unpopular with students, schools and employers?

It is back-to-school time and it is not only new pupils who will be nervous. Education Secretary Ed Balls has every reason to be anxious as he enters the new term clutching the satchel containing his big hope for the future: the new diplomas. If this major reform of England’s 14–19 curriculum fails – and there are already some ominous signs – then the government’s attempt to engineer a political revival will suffer a heavy setback. So will Balls’ political reputation. After the summer problems with the late results of the Sats, he cannot afford another schools disaster.

The introduction of the new diplomas is potentially the biggest curriculum and assessment reform in English secondary schools since the launch of GCSEs more than 20 years ago. It could, finally, bridge the academic/vocational divide. It is critical to the success of the raising of the school-leaving age to 18 and central to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s mission to improve the nation’s skill levels and economic competitiveness. Yet the diplomas could also be a damp squib, ignored by the majority of students, which would waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and cause a huge loss of face for both Balls and Brown.

So all eyes are focused on the 1,300 schools and colleges that will start teaching the first five new diplomas, covering: IT; engineering; construction and the built environment; society, health & development; and creative & media. Yet the 20,000 enrolments represent just half the number of students the government originally aimed for. It is now pinning its hopes on a big upsurge in 2009, when more than three-quarters of schools and colleges across England will begin offering diploma courses. But if things get bumpy this year, some students and parents might get cold feet.

Although diplomas have not registered strongly with parents or students, there has at least been broad enthusiasm from schools for the principles behind them. However, scratch a little deeper and most head teachers seem disappointed that the new qualifications no longer deliver the original aims of Sir Mike Tomlinson’s 2004 report, which argued that a new diploma system should replace all existing qualifications, including GCSEs and A-levels. The then prime minister, Tony Blair, was unwilling to risk sacrificing A-levels, and many believe his decision has doomed the reforms to failure.

Back in 2004, Tomlinson told the government: ‘The status quo is not an option.’ Equally undesirable, he said, was ‘piecemeal change’ of the curriculum and examination system. His committee’s proposal of 20 new diplomas to replace GCSEs, A-levels and the alphabet soup of vocational qualifications was essential to end the current weaknesses in the education system, namely ‘too many young people leaving education lacking basic and personal skills’, ‘a low staying-on rate post 16’, and an examination system that was ‘too great a burden’ on students and teachers.

The government agreed with Tomlinson’s diagnosis but the big question is whether the planned diplomas can achieve the desired effect now that they must compete in a very crowded qualifications market instead of having the field to themselves.

One worrying sign is that grammar and independent schools have shown no enthusiasm for the diplomas, raising fears that they will be seen as a ‘second-class’ qualification. These schools are increasingly looking to alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate; Cambridge University’s own post-16 qualification, the Cambridge Pre-U; and the Assessment & Qualifications Alliance baccalaureate, which they hope will give their students a unique selling point with universities.

Another big concern is the response of employers and business. Although the CBI broadly welcomed the plans for the first 14 work-related diplomas, it is unhappy about Balls’ decision to add three more diplomas in purely academic subjects (languages, humanities and sciences) from 2011. CBI director-general Richard Lambert says introducing diplomas in these subjects ‘runs the risk of undermining the integrity of these traditional academic subjects’. He also fears they could be ‘a distraction from the need to raise the numbers of young people studying science and maths’.

This criticism has stung the government. In August, schools minister Jim Knight hit back, insisting the academic diplomas would ‘boost young people’s participation in science and languages’. He announced that major employers, including AstraZeneca and British Airways, would be involved alongside Oxford University in developing the content of each of these diplomas. For the government, the academic diplomas are not a ‘distraction’ but essential to the overall reputation of diplomas, which ministers want to be as much of a route to university as A-levels.

Aside from these specific concerns, perhaps the biggest worry is that the history of recent large-scale education reforms suggests they rarely run smoothly. From the introduction of the national curriculum through to the A-level changes of ‘Curriculum 2000’, all have had to be radically recast within a few years of launch. Reforms of vocational education have had a particularly poor record, falling at the ditch known as ‘parity of esteem’ as governments have sought to bestow academic equivalence and assessment regimes on vocational learning. The result has been qualifications that lack both the prestige of A-levels and the practical, hands-on learning desired by many young people and employers.

So can the government’s vision of a new approach to ‘applied learning’ – they are at pains not to describe diplomas as ‘vocational’ qualifications – succeed where other reforms have failed? Well, they are certainly finding the cash to try to ensure success. Education’s relatively generous settlement in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review included an unspecified increase to cover the costs of diplomas.

The initial funding premium is worth on average about £1,000 per year for schools for each pupil taking a diploma course. If that premium continues, and if student numbers rise in line with expectations, that will be a very expensive commitment.

Meanwhile, like the parent of a particularly demanding teenager, the government has been forced to dig deeper for more money. Back in January, extra cash was found for consortiums to help them strengthen their capacity to deliver diplomas. Then in June an extra £81m was found to train teachers and a further £23m for pupil transport in rural areas. Mid-July brought a further £60m to develop exemplar materials.

Ministers are now so committed to the diploma programme that the costs are bound to rise. After all, they may have only two years to get the qualifications sufficiently embedded to make it difficult for a new government to uproot them. Indeed, political uncertainty is one of the big problems with take-up. As head teachers have commented, how can you advise young people to embark on the new qualifications route when there is no guarantee it will survive a change of government?

Meanwhile, head teachers are becoming concerned at the complexity of the system. This is partly the result of the bureaucratic desire to create parity with existing qualifications – which might have been avoided had the original Tomlinson proposals been accepted. So there are three basic levels of diploma – foundation, higher and advanced – each roughly aligned with lower level GCSEs, higher level GCSEs, and A-levels, respectively.

That much is straightforward. But there is also now a progression diploma, which sits between the higher and advanced diplomas and is worth 2.5 A-levels. Then there is the extended diploma, which is available for students wanting more breadth at each of the three original levels. Thus, for example, the extended diploma at advanced level is worth 4.5 A-levels. Multiply the five different levels by the 17 subject lines and you start to see just how complicated the diplomas will be.

The grading system further increases this complexity. The advanced diploma follows the conventional A-level pattern of grades running from A* down to E. But at the higher diploma, the grades run only from A* to C and at the foundation level they run from A* to B. Translating these into points in the school performance league tables will, of course, require even more complex formulas.

Yet there is an even greater challenge: the difficulty of collaborative working between schools and colleges. The specialist nature of diplomas means that no school is expected to be able to deliver all of them on its own – but there will be a national entitlement for all pupils to have access to all 17 diplomas. So schools and colleges have to band together into consortiums, with each institution working out with its partners which lines of learning to offer. This has not always proved easy and is a particular issue for independent schools, which often see themselves battling in a competitive market with their neighbours.

For state schools, this collaborative approach is both exciting and alarming. While many head teachers welcome it, they struggle to see how it fits into the competitive market model that has been fostered by successive governments.

They are also unclear how this will fit with the current accountability regime of Ofsted inspections and school league tables. If a pupil from school A gains a diploma at school B, which school gets the points for its league table performance? And does school B get Ofsted’s praise for the student’s good behaviour and attendance when he is on the roll of school A?

Collaborative working involves some tricky logistical issues. Can different schools’ timetables be co-ordinated to allow pupils to move between them for diploma classes? How much learning time will be lost by pupils moving between institutions? How can teaching standards be maintained across consortium members?

These issues can be resolved but they will put an extra strain on school management teams. They are already under huge pressure implementing other reforms, such as the changes to GCSEs and A-levels, which also start this term.

There is also concern that despite their job-related titles, the diplomas are not really vocational at all. Although Blair always described them as ‘vocational diplomas’, the government has steadily shifted away from this label. It dropped the first half of the official name of ‘specialist diplomas’; then it insisted the diplomas were not ‘vocational’ but ‘applied learning’. Ken Boston, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, insists the diplomas are not intended to produce ‘job-ready’ students. He says they are about producing young people with core academic skills, flexible soft skills such as problem solving and team-working, and some background knowledge of specific employment sectors. Yet this worries many teachers, who wonder how well diplomas will motivate non-academic students, particularly those who will soon be required to stay on in education until they are 18. This summer, Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University described the diplomas as ‘a disaster waiting to happen’. He says their purpose is confused as they are ‘trying to be all things to all people’.

A recent assessment by Geoff Stanton for the CfBT Education Trust highlighted the lack of practical learning. It noted, for example, that in the seven mandatory units of the diploma in construction and the built environment, only one specifies the use of tools. It argues that the diplomas offer too little to less academic students – exactly the group that is dropping out at 16 now and will be required to stay in education from 2013. The report says that the drive to achieve parity with A-levels, and the excessive focus on the assessment regime, has led to ‘specifications that favour abstract rather than practical learning’.

At present, schools and colleges offer a range of genuinely vocational qualifications, such as BTecs, City & Guilds, and OCR Nationals. Increasing numbers are applying for these courses, yet their long-term future is now in doubt. Although no final decisions have been made, there are fears that funding for them will be withdrawn as a way to ensure the wider take-up of diplomas.

The government’s vision is for all young people to have a choice of three main pathways from the age of 14: GCSEs and A-levels, apprenticeships, and diplomas. They want each to be sufficiently flexible so that students can, if they wish, end up in university by any route. There are signs that the practical, hands-on and job-specific nature of apprenticeships is proving popular with growing numbers of young people who find little satisfaction in GCSEs and A-levels.

But whether the ‘third-way’ approach of the diplomas, which are neither vocational nor purely academic, will be successful remains unclear. At present, it looks an uphill task. There is still a lack of clarity about exactly what sort of animal diplomas are.

They could be the reform that finally ends the English disease of under-valuing applied learning. But they could also be the latest expensive and disruptive failure to reform a secondary school system that has been dominated by the so-called ‘gold standard’ of A-levels for more than 50 years. The stakes are very high indeed for Balls.

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