Diplomas-the beginning of the end?

Low take up and high costs may seal diplomas fate


Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the diploma, the qualification that appears not to have won the confidence of key stakeholders?  One leading Head told me eighteen months ago that the diploma, to his mind, was “poorly conceived, poorly managed and  poorly marketed”.  Other critics have claimed it is too complex, too expensive, and insufficiently rigorous and not demand led. The last charge, in particular, has a certain resonance. The diploma, which one Secretary of State described as neither an academic nor a vocational qualification, was the result of a compromise rather than any lobbying from employers or admissions tutors. It was decidedly not demand-led. Ruth Kelly the then Education Secretary couldn’t accept the proposals offered by Mike Tomlinson for an overarching post 16 Diploma because  Tony Blair wasn’t prepared to dump the A level. So the resulting compromise was the diploma. Neither the best universities, nor employers have taken to the diploma, which has not been helped by overselling by politicians (Ed Balls ,when Education Secretary, predicted it would be  ‘the jewel in the crown ‘of our education system) and very low take up at its launch. The Tories when in opposition were very lukewarm about the diploma and their concern was not to pull the rug from under those who had already opted to study it.  But they had no great faith in the qualification itself. An Ofsted report in 2009 found that among many of the first cohort of 14 to 19-year-old students taking the diploma there was “little firm evidence of their achievement in functional skills”, including maths, English and IT, inspectors said. Ofsted inspectors were also concerned about the lack of formal assessment of the qualification. “There was little evidence of frequent marking or checking of students’ knowledge and understanding in relation to work they had completed,” the report said.

Only one diploma has  really caught the eye. Engineering .But the expense is a big problem. Wellington College ,the £30,000 a year public school ,which has strong brand identity, aimed to launch the Engineering diploma but decided against because it couldn’t raise the funds on a sustainable basis to support its delivery(they were going to offer it to some local state pupils too)  . Now it has been revealed, according to a report in the TES last month, that the diploma has cost the taxpayer nearly £20,000 for every pupil completing it. The figure, which does not include teaching costs, is almost twice the amount previously estimated. And the final bill, already hundreds of millions, could be higher still. Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University said: “It is a terrible waste. The diploma doesn’t have much recognition or open many doors.”  And where is the demand? Much less than half the pupils anticipated have opted for diplomas.  Just 9,069 of the diplomas aimed at GCSE-level pupils were completed this year, compared to 5.15 million GCSEs. They are likely to drop further as this year’s courses were begun before the change in government and the launch of its English Baccalaureate – both likely to further damage the diploma.

So far, according to the TES, only 15,063 students have finished a diploma at any level since it was first launched in 2008. In the meantime, at least £295.6 million of Government money has been spent on developing the diploma, funding consortia and training staff to deliver it, and subsidising transport so pupils could reach lessons.

The figure works out at £19,624 per candidate, nearly four times the annual £5,083 average per-pupil school funding in England, and only covers diploma spending until the end of March 2010. The Government thinks that exam boards should be able to continue to offer the diploma if they think there is a market for it. The writing seems to be on the wall for the diploma. That is what happens to qualifications that are introduced without clear evidence of demand. Qualifications designed to impress employers and Higher Education institutions must listen to them and ensure that they are engaged in a meaningful way in their design, in their  quality assurance and implementation .This did not happen. Instead we had the classic command and control interventions from Whitehall trying to implement a compromise political ‘solution’ which was never fully backed by stakeholders.  We are  now seeing the expensive consequences of this  folly.

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