DIPLOMAS- A WOLF AT THE DOOR?
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