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The Changing Curriculum - Is this the dawn of a real education revolution?

Part 5: 14-19. The new diplomas may not yet be as popular as ministers hoped, but the first schools to introduce them are optimistic about their future, reports Warwick Mansell

Part 5: 14-19. The new diplomas may not yet be as popular as ministers hoped, but the first schools to introduce them are optimistic about their future, reports Warwick Mansell

The new 14-19 diplomas have been billed as the most significant education reform taking place anywhere in the world.

One employers' group, Skills for Business, has even described them as "the most extraordinary change to England's education system for more than a century".

But it seems that the introduction of the courses in selected consortia of schools and further education colleges next month will be a rather quiet affair.

Only small groups of students - typically no more than a handful in each secondary school which is trialling the qualification - will embark on the new courses.

Yet advocates of the diplomas, and some of those about to teach them, say they offer a bold approach to education which will eventually transform both the way subjects are taught and the manner in which schools interact with one another.

Diploma partnerships - groups of schools, usually with an FE college - are reporting a positive response to the new qualifications from the pupils who will take them.

This is out of line with many reports, in which scepticism from universities and some employers, and the lower than expected initial take- up of the courses - predicted numbers will be 20,000 in September compared to early predictions of 38,000 - have been dominant.

The wide array of diploma options that are available means that schools and colleges are being forced to work together, as no single institution will be able to offer everything.

At Surrey Heath Area Partnership for Education, a consortium of four schools and a further education college piloting the diplomas in two subjects, a sense of cautious enthusiasm was in evidence.

Teachers at the partner schools in the Camberley area said the diplomas it will be offering - in information technology and in society, health and development - had advantages over current courses, although the switch seemed an evolution rather than revolution.

The Surrey partnership ran a successful creative arts festival this summer in preparation for its launch next year of the creative and media diploma.

As at other partnerships, the number of Surrey students who will embark on the diplomas is well down on initial estimates. The partnership's 2006 bid to the Government said there would be 155 learners, while now the expectation is 50 to 60.

However, Christine Evans, who will be teaching the society, health and development diploma course at Kings International College in Camberley for the Surrey partnership, said all eight Year 11 students who had been given a preview of the course were looking forward to it.

Indeed, the partnership is so excited about the diploma, it is already planning to phase out its Btec qualification in health and social care over the next two years.

Why were students so interested? One element seems to be the coursework: the overwhelming majority of the diploma course is assessed internally. Some pupils also found the subject matter exciting.

Katie Coe, 16, who will be taking the level 3 (A-level equivalent) course, said: "I want to work with children with disabilities and those who are less fortunate than me - social work, perhaps - and I think this course will help me with that. Also, I'm dyslexic, so I find it useful to be doing mainly coursework."

Her parents - her father is a policeman and her mother used to work with disabled children - were also enthusiastic about the diploma, she said, as it would give her a good grounding for a career.

At Collingwood College in Camberley, Emma Hayward, 14, is equally upbeat about the prospect of studying a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) IT diploma. "I thought it would be a good opportunity," she said. "It's got coursework and it's more hands-on than GCSEs. It's also good to do work experience."

Emma is not putting all her eggs in one basket, though: GCSEs in English, maths, science, religious studies, French and textiles will also keep her busy.

Most striking, however, are teachers' comments about the effects on them personally of preparing for the diplomas.

Ms Evans said that her training for the new qualification had involved seven workshops with people from outside organisations who wanted to support the diplomas, from the local police constable to a manager of a residential care home, a specialist nurse and a representative of Thames Valley University. "In all my years in teaching, I have never experienced this working with people who are not teachers," she said.

Teachers' experience of diploma training has been far from uniformly excellent. Matthew Thorne, of Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire, says: "We have not had any full-day training by Edexcel. We were due to, but it was cancelled because of delays in finalising the specifications of the course. Someone came down to the college for a couple of hours to answer some of our questions. It is not what you would expect though, considering how important the courses are." However, the potential benefits of collaboration between schools, colleges and employers are being talked about enthusiastically at the Surrey partnership and elsewhere.

Jerry Oddie, principal of Collingwood College and chair of the Surrey partnership, said the diploma work, and other recent projects between Camberley's schools, had changed forever a relationship which was based on competition.

It has been argued that the league table culture would make it difficult for institutions to co-operate as they should to make the diplomas work. But Mr Oddie said it was not impossible.

"We have come from a situation where it was a bit dog-eat-dog here three years ago, to one where we are fully committed to working in partnership," he said. "This is quite remarkable. I do not think we will ever go back."

Around the country, there is similar enthusiasm. Julia Coleman, an experienced teacher helping Wigan prepare for the launch of the environment diploma next year, said: "There is real potential for some exciting and innovative courses emerging which are based around co- operation rather than the competitive model which has dominated secondary education for the past 20 years."

However, Laurent Berges, a head of faculty at Wakefield College, who is planning to introduce the hospitality and catering diploma next year, said that other college-based partnerships were experiencing problems working with schools.

"I think some schools find it bizarre that they are being asked to offer, say, health and social care or tourism," he said. "Some are not particularly interested."

With so many new facets to this qualification - from the way the assessment is organised to the need for joint working between institutions - the capacity for problems with it is great. However, if the testimony of many of those working to deliver the diplomas is fair, they may make changes to education at a level much deeper than many headlines would suggest.


- The diplomas are being launched next month in selected parts of England in five work-related subjects: IT; creative and media; construction and the built environment; engineering; and society, health and development.

- By 2013, the Government promises diplomas will be offered in 17 subjects across England, including three academic areas: science, languages and humanities. Ministers have also said they could become the qualifications of choice for most students by then.

- Diplomas give pupils the opportunity to sample work-related learning without committing themselves to any particular job. Fields covered include computer game design, craft skills and fashion, and project management, with a staggering array of options available to pupils.

- Advocates of the diploma say the courses offer the chance for secondary education to break down the barriers between subjects and to provide a coherent look at a broad programme of learning.

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