Diploma trials miss launch deadline

Key parts of skills tests will not be fully piloted until after teaching begins

THOUSANDS OF students will start the Government's new work-related diploma courses next year with central aspects of the new qualification still under trial, a committee of MPs warned yesterday.

Key parts of the diploma, including new functional skills tests and an extended project, will not have been fully piloted until after teaching begins in September 2008. Ministers had promised, after the flawed Curriculum 2000 reforms, never again to implement major qualifications changes without extensive trials.

The all-party Commons education select committee issued the warnings after a six-month inquiry into 14-19 education which also found that the education world remained committed to making the diplomas a success.

Barry Sheerman, its chairman, said they had the potential to offer a unique and valuable qualifications route and represented an "opportunity too precious to miss". The committee published evidence from two exam boards warning of the tightness of the timescale for the development of the diplomas, which the Government has billed as the most important education reforms going on anywhere in the world.

The AQA board said: "The inclusion of so many unpiloted components in a new portmanteau qualification produces a high level of risk. The extended project pilot will not be completed until autumn 2008, after teaching begins for specialised diplomas. The all-important functional skills qualifications have had limited trials but pilots will not commence until September 2007 and will not report before teaching begins."

The OCR said that boards, teachers and assessment experts had largely been kept out of the development process until this academic year. It had then been given just five months to develop the detail. The committee's report said it was concerned that awarding bodies have been given such little time. The committee also urged ministers to review the structure of the courses, questioning whether the current model, with diplomas in 14 subjects at three difficulty levels, was too complex.

It was vital that the diplomas, which an estimated 38,000 students will embark on next year through 145 partnerships of schools, colleges and employers, were not expanded too quickly.

The committee also criticised league tables as discouraging the collaborative work necessary to make the diplomas a success, and attacked the three days' training being provided for those teaching the diplomas as "inadequate".

A survey published yesterday by Edge, an education charity, showed that 64 per cent of teachers and lecturers believed diplomas would have a lower status than GCSEs and A-levels.

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said that the Government viewed the diploma development timescale as "challenging but achievable".


Students will be able to opt for hundreds of hours of maths tuition over a two-year course as part of the Government's new engineering diploma, The TES was told this week.

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, said he was confident this would help ensure universities recognise the new work-related courses as valid alternatives to A-levels. He was responding after this newspaper highlighted concerns from the Engineering Professors'

Council about the comparatively low levels of compulsory maths in level three diplomas being launched next year. Engineering diploma students will be required to take only 60 hours of maths, compared to about 360 hours for maths A-level.

The council, which represents 1,600 academics, wrote to the Commons education select committee to complain this would mean admissions tutors might not take the new courses seriously.

But Mr Rammell said that the compulsory part of the engineering diploma was only a small part of the overall qualification, which would take students 540 hours to complete in total. Some 360 hours of this would be devoted to optional specialist courses, all of which could be concerned with maths if the student chose, and universities would be given details of students'


The Government favours a flexible model, because it would allow non university-bound students to take fewer mathematical courses as preparation for entry to work or further study. Representatives of the Engineering Professors' Council met those developing the diploma earlier this month and said they are now happy with this approach.

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