In defence of diplomas

Sarah McCarthy-Fry

In response to comments on the diploma made by David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges, last week, I would like to set the record straight.

Early feedback indicates that both teachers and learners are hugely excited about being involved in the new qualification. To claim that the diploma is not firing young people's imagination is to devalue the enthusiasm of those who want to get involved and unlock their talents through the diploma.

There is also a basic misunderstanding here about learner numbers. We have never had a target. Figures previously announced were a projection of capacity to deliver, not a target. Our paramount concern has always been the quality of the experience for the learners undertaking diplomas.

To describe the diplomas as a "vocational initiative" is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the qualification. The diploma is a broad and general qualification that allows learners to combine theoretical and applied approaches to learning. It is a new concept that attempts to overcome the historic and pernicious distinction between "academic" and "vocational" - a concept Mr Collins seems not to have grasped.

We have commissioned an independent three-year evaluation of the diploma's development, implementation and impact, so we are already reviewing both how the qualification was designed and how it is being introduced. We expect to publish the first reports from the evaluation in early 2009. This will allow us to learn lessons as the programme evolves.

Mr Collins' comments on partnership working are also unfortunate, not least the suggestion that any college would view working with a school as "collaborating with the enemy". A collaborative approach is vital. There are already examples up and down the country of schools, colleges, employers and higher education not focusing on narrow self-interest, but working together to improve the local offering for young people. And 88 per cent of colleges are teaching the diploma.

We recognise that the delivery of diplomas does involve additional costs. Accordingly, the Government has targeted additional funding at the design of qualifications, developing the workforce and delivering the programme at local level. To date we have spent about Pounds 65 million, and over the next three years we are making available an additional Pounds 370m of recurrent funding, and nearly Pounds 80m to support delivery of the diploma programme.

The 14-19 qualifications strategy sets out a long-term reform programme to simplify and streamline the system, which at present is complex and poorly understood. We want to move towards a position in which public funding for 14-19 qualifications is channelled primarily into four routes: GCSEs and A-levels; diplomas; apprenticeships; and the foundation learning tier, which aims to improve the skills of learners working below level 2, aged 14 and over. The move to this new system will be gradual, and we recognise that there is a good deal of highly valued, high-quality content available at present that must be preserved.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Schools minister, Department for Children, Schools and Families.

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Sarah McCarthy-Fry

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