Nikki Froud isn't involved with the diploma yet, but will be teaching hair and beauty studies from September at the Nikki Froud Hair Academy in Portsmouth. She thinks it will be a big change to the way she teaches now, but she is confident she will cope. "Some other schools don't seem to have tapped into the training. We have made time to do it. We have planned this for two years, and we have done it well," she says.
After a slow start - only about 12,000 14 to 19-year-olds chose to take up the diploma in 2008-09, the first academic year they ran - more schools are being won over to the advantages of a qualification that is flexible enough to enable pupils to gain an academic qualification and build up vocational skills at the same time. Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that 97 per cent of local authorities will offer the new qualification by September 2010.
But as the diploma enters its second year, with five new subject areas coming on board, how well prepared are schools to accommodate it? Has the limited uptake of the qualification in its first year deterred schools from making the necessary changes to the curriculum?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry, schools minister, thinks it is important that the schools who signed up in the first year share what they have learnt. "The numbers of students were fairly small, but that's a good thing because it has enabled us to iron out the wrinkles, if you like," she told TES Magazine.
Designed to prepare young people for the world of work, all pupils have to complete a minimum of 10 days' work experience, gain functional skills in English, maths and ICT to GCSE level, and hand in a personal project. One worry is that, in the current economic climate, employers will have less time and resources to support the qualification, according to Ms Froud.
"It is not just the work experience, but now that managers are cutting back and even working the floor themselves I fear that there will be less time for business talks and mentoring," she says.
Despite these concerns, Hugo Lopez, currently teaching the diploma in information technology at Hanham High School in South Gloucestershire, emphasises that the diploma is more than a vocational qualification. Without the academic element, he says, the practical side of the diploma simply would not work. "The projects are very real - the students do market research, visit the site, improve from feedback and deliver," he says.
"The scenarios are real and true. After four modules the students come in and out and are absolutely ready for a job. We work on time management, teamwork and critical thinking."
A combination of academic rigour and hands-on experience is exactly what employers need, says Clare Riley, group manager of education relations at Microsoft. "Some people can't even work out the change when they buy a can of soup in a supermarket these days," she says.
"We want people who are confident communicators and have a passion for IT." Recent research from Edge, the independent education foundation, backs her up. It found that 43 per cent of parents said they did not think their children were being adequately prepared for the workplace.
"The education system has changed and some schools are doing great things, but it hasn't changed fast enough and as a result is still failing many students," it said.
Schools teaching the diploma this year should seek advice from institutions that offered it in the first year, or team up with other schools for training and resources.
"We recognise that no one institution can actually deliver the diploma. We encourage people to work in partnership," Ms McCarthy-Fry says.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority advises that partners working in a consortium need a shared commitment to improve the quality of teaching, and responsibilities should be divided fairly. So what does this mean in practice?
"Look at the nearest school to have delivered the diploma and ask `What worked?' By planning together both schools get rewards," Mr Lopez says.
But co-ordinating timetables, travel and equipment between several different schools in one area is not always easy.
Geoff Booth, head of the school of hospitality at London's Westminster Kingsway College and the consortium diploma lead for Camden and Westminster, thinks this is critical because if schools are assembling groups from several places they need a common timetable.
"Funding has not been a problem. The problem is time. Everyone involved in teaching is busy. To put training on is time-expensive. It is very difficult to put everything together so that everyone can access it," he says.
Because it is the consortium lead, Westminster Kingsway College already has the experience and facilities in place for the new diploma in hospitality that begins in September. Students will be able to learn in one of the many busy kitchens the college runs for its professional chef programme - and acquire theoretical skills in a virtual learning environment.
"We know we are very lucky. We've been out there to talk to schools and we have our employer partners who received schools groups in their hotels, arenas and restaurants," he says. "But at the moment it is hard to co- ordinate all of that."
Mr Booth believes that it is going to take time for the diploma qualification to work.
"It won't be perfect on day one, but it will be sensible and constructed in a way that we know will work and will give the learner a good experience," he says. "What we'll do is to simply refine it, and refine it, and refine it as the years go by - and then make it into the product we know it can be." He adds that students need good, unbiased advice and guidance when making decisions, especially given the relative newness of the qualification.
"You need to have someone advising the students who are thinking of taking the diploma and telling them the benefits and the drawbacks. They have to know," he says. "At the moment I don't think we're there yet. We've not got that message as clear as it could be, because people don't quite know what it looks like."
One of the main aims of the diploma is to create a system in which young people have a choice when leaving school. Traditionally at the age of 14, says Ms McCarthy-Fry, pupils start to be turned off education as they begin to choose subjects in which to specialise. "We want to offer different routes to people that will enthuse young people to want to learn," she says. "I want young people to be enthusiastic about learning and enthusiastic about their studies."
Rachel Evans, 16, is doing an Advanced Diploma in Information Technology at Gleed Girls Technology College in Lincolnshire. She feels the diploma has given her many future choices. She already works with a company producing websites for small businesses, but hopes to carry on studying as well. "I might even combine it with another job in IT now that I know what careers are out there," she says.
This flexibility is what makes the diploma stand out, says Mr Booth, rather than confining pupils to a defined career or subject route too early. "That's the worst thing you could do to anybody: we must give them options throughout their lives. And then when they get to a certain age, say 18 or 19, they start to narrow down the options," he says.
But what if that choice involves going to university? Overall, about 80 per cent of undergraduate courses at UK universities will consider applicants with diploma qualifications, according to Ucas. However, that figure is more like 40 per cent at the more academic Russell Group universities, which include Oxbridge and University College London.
Providers of the diploma also worry about what will happen if a Conservative government decided to take 14-19 education in a different direction.
But Mr Booth is cautiously optimistic. "If there is a change of government, I hope that we've got enough evidence to say that this is a worthwhile alternative opportunity. And I would hope that the incoming government, whoever that is, would say `we're running with this and we'll see where this goes and we'll appraise this accordingly'," he says.
In raising the diploma's profile, Mr Booth believes word of mouth works best. He remembers a small pilot group with 12 young apprentices two or three years ago, who all stayed until the end of the course. They all told their friends how great it was, and the year after, the college had 180 of them. "I think as the years roll by, more people will get a better understanding of what this is all about. I think people are sitting there at the moment saying `I just want to look and see what it is like before maybe committing my students to it'," he says.
The DCSF will not publish figures on this year's intake until the end of the year, but Mr Booth believes there will be a surge in popularity.
"They don't come because we throw lots of money into marketing and promotion," he says. "They come because the students that are here tell their friends: `I'm having a good time', `I'm learning from this', `I'm going to get a good job at the end of it'."
It's early days, but schools are treading ever closer to making pupils ready for the world of work without losing academic rigour
Jonna Dagliden Look out for more information on how to become a diploma teacher in next week's TES Magazine
Fact or fiction?
- The diploma is "vocational". Not entirely. The diploma combines elements of academic subjects and practical skills in a way that reflects modern working environments and the demands of a degree course, according to the DCSF.
- It can't lead to university. False. The diploma was developed with the help of universities, and diploma students can now choose from about 80 per cent of undergraduate university courses, according to data released by Ucas.
- The diploma is the same as an apprenticeship. False. Apprenticeships lead towards specific occupations, whereas diplomas offer a broader base of knowledge.
- The diploma is for less "academic" pupils. False. The Foundation Diploma is worth five GCSEs (grades D-G), the Higher Diploma is worth seven GCSEs (grades A*-C) and the Advanced Diploma is as robust as three-and-a-half A- levels.
- The diploma will replace A-levels. False. There are no immediate plans to abolish A-levels and there are also other routes pupils can take post- 16, including the International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge Pre-U.
- Once you've made a decision to do it, you have to stick to that subject for ever. False. Pupils can follow a number of routes within the diploma. After completing a Higher Diploma, a student can go on to do an Advanced Diploma (in the same or different subject), take A-levels, or do an apprenticeship.
- Introduced September 2008 - Construction and the Built Environment; Information Technology; Engineering; Creative and Media; Society, Health and Development
- September 2009 - Environmental and Land Based Studies; Manufacturing and Product Design; Hair and Beauty Studies; Hospitality; Business, Administration and Finance
- September 2010 - Public Services; Sport and Active Leisure; Retail Business; Travel and Tourism
- September 2011 - Diploma in Languages and International Communication; Diploma in Humanities and Social Sciences; and the Diploma in Science (the foundation and higher will be introduced in 2011, the advanced in 2012).