Professor Alison  Wolf  who is reviewing vocational education for the Government is no friend of Diplomas.

Nor does she warm to big government and central planning. She believes that vocational education should be genuinely practical. She has in the past  been scathing about the hybrid approach of diplomas and their failure to deliver practical instruction, alongside the academic element of the courses.

She has described diplomas as ‘devoid of educational purpose and coherence’.  She  is not alone in never having seen the point of  Diplomas -and its not hard to see why.

Given the lack of take up among pupils it seems that many share critics  views too. Only 12,000 pupils have taken up the courses so far — less than half the number  originally estimated.  Diplomas   are neither  vocational nor academic.  They are a hybrid qualification.

Vocational qualifications should be genuinely practical and of  relevance and utility to employers.  BTECHs, maybe. Most Diplomas definitely  not (ok Engineering, possibly).  By contrast, Wolf is an enthusiast for high quality apprenticeships (note high quality- not the low level  apprenticeships  that   hardly  merit the name) that also offer a route into higher education.

Diplomas are,  of course ,the   result of a compromise after the then education secretary  Ruth Kelly rejected the so called Tomlinson proposals (which would have seen the end of A levels). They are in effect Tomlinson (very) lite. But one thing they are  not is demand driven, a requirement for credible sustainable qualifications. Did employers go to the Government and say the one thing we really need urgently now is not a purely  practical vocational qualification nor a purely  academic qualification  but something that falls pretty much  between the two. No, of course  they didn’t. Were they consulted yes, well sort of,  but what they were saying was either misunderstood or got lost in  translation. So if  employers didn’t ask for them  then it must have been higher education institutions then. Well, no actually, it wasn’t them either. They wanted more stretching academic qualifications, to encourage pupils to think laterally, to make linkages between the subjects they were studying  and to develop analytical and synoptic  skills,  in other words, precisely the skills required for an undergraduate to get the best out  of  and to thrive in a higher education environment. Diplomas were never going   to fit the Bill.

There are currently five diplomas on offer: construction and the built environment; media; engineering; IT; and society, health and development.

The diploma is split into two parts — principal learning, in which students are taught about the employment sector and work-related skills — and functional skills, to help them to develop their English, maths and IT skills.  According to Ofsted, though  almost  half of teenagers studying for the new Diploma are not receiving satisfactory English and maths teaching.  They are also hard to explain, difficult to deliver and costly. Remember diplomas are often taught across different locations, with students needing to get themselves from schools to colleges and back again. Concerns have been mounting that the cost of transporting students will hit rural local authorities, which have responsibility for the diplomas after the Learning and Skills Council was wound up and in some cases adequate infrastructure is simply not in place. Schools offering the diploma work together because of the specialist facilities that some courses require. But as Ofsted has discovered  timetabling clashes lead to some students missing lessons in their own school and having to catch up later, “putting considerable extra pressure on those involved”, according Ofsted.  The independent sector has almost totally ignored them too. The Head of a top school told me that Diplomas were  poorly conceived , poorly  sold and poorly  implemented. Ouch.

So, what about Higher Education? The Vice Chancellor of Exeter University Steve Smith who was close to the  last government said,  in response to a report by the 1994 Group in 2008 , that  the Diploma reforms have the potential to “become a radical alternative to the existing curriculum”. And he praised Diplomas. Either Smith didn’t read the report, or misunderstood what he was reading, or maybe he just read the press release that went with it  and bought the spin.  But  what that survey of leading research universities  actually said (and you needed to read it to find this out) was  that 38% of admissions tutors are “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to accept Diplomas.  Less than half (48%) said they were “very likely” to accept them. The message was loud and clear to everyone, except that is  Steve Smith.  Many Universities and particularly the elite universities had real concerns over the Diploma and were  wisely reserving judgement.

A qualification doesn’t establish its credibility and robustness because our esteemed  politicians  and a few of their supporters tell us  just  how good  it is. Indeed the greater the distance put  between politicians and new qualifications, the better (Ed Balls note). Leave it to the experts . It takes time and for key stakeholders to agree that it meets their requirements in practice.  Two years  on not much has changed and still there is low take up.  True, a  few  have came forward to praise Diplomas, at the last Governments instigation, mainly  in letters columns  but no  clear sign, as yet, of  big   employers or  top higher education institutions accepting them as a worthy replacement of A levels and GCSEs, which, lets face it  was the last governments  original intention.  Nor is Professor Wolf likely to give supporters of Diplomas grounds for much optimism  as to their longer term future. But it is hard not to sympathise with those pupils (a small  minority)  who have opted for Diplomas having been encouraged to do so. This seems to be  the  main reason why they have not already  been dumped. Professor Wolf though may seal their fate.

Note: Wolfs daughter Rachel  is heading the New Schools Network


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