Diplomas aren't for dunces as long as they have an academic element

Anthony Seldon & Matthew Ford

With Wellington College set - we believe - to be the first major independent school to offer a diploma (the level 3 in engineering) from September 2009, we were interested to read Bernard Trafford's article, "Diplomas threaten our independence", in The TES on November 28. We suspect it probably represents the views of many heads of independent schools: in summary, a half-hearted support for the principle of diplomas, swiftly accompanied by a damning list of the problems associated with them and, should they be forced upon all institutions, concerns as to their vocational nature. This then conveniently justifies, for many, the avoidance of any further engagement with diplomas.

It is true that it would be undesirable to see the option of a purely academic education replaced entirely with a compulsory vocational one where everyone decided upon a career and studied specifically to enable them to pursue that alone. However, towards the end of a pupil's education, there are some for whom that is entirely appropriate. Let us not forget that there are academic diplomas in the offing for those wishing to study, say, humanities, with no particular career in mind.

It is easy for the reader to fall into the trap of neatly compartmentalising those who might follow these two routes as "academic" (meaning intelligent people who will go on to get good degrees and top jobs) and "vocational" (meaning less intelligent people who will do entirely worthwhile jobs that may require more dextrous skill and less brain power). This is, of course, nonsense, and the cause of some of the prejudice against diplomas.

Take a doctor; medicine is a vocation (as, of course, is teaching). The future medic knows that she or he is most likely to need A-levels in maths, chemistry and biology, and most will study these subjects or similar combinations. Is this not a vocational route? Such pupils study subjects, not necessarily for a love of them, but as a means to an end: to get into medical school and become a doctor.

The next line of argument against the engineering diploma would likely be that it is somehow inferior to the traditional route of A-levels in maths, further maths, physics and something else. But Geoff Parks, director of admissions (and an engineer) at Cambridge University, has stated publicly his support for the diploma, and has said he sees it as a better preparation for an engineering degree than A-levels alone.

With the engineering diploma, one studies a core that looks at all areas of engineering, and this is equivalent to 2.5 A-levels. As a part of the package, one then chooses an "additional or specialist learning" unit. This can be anything from a diverse range of qualifications to suit a range of pupils. In our case, pupils will choose an A-level, making the total package equivalent to 3.5 A-levels. As we expect our pupils to do at least four A-levels, a second, additional one will be chosen. Hence, one of our pupils doing the engineering diploma might do A-level maths and further maths or physics as a part of it, worth 4.5 A-levels in all. This should satisfy those worried that the course is not sufficiently "academic" - whatever one might take that to mean.

So what advantages will our engineering diploma pupil have over his or her pure A-level counterparts? Instead of just studying an extra subject or two at A-level and knowing nothing of engineering, he or she will have studied modules of the whole engineering family: electronic, materials, chemical etc. Much of this is not easy - some might term it "academic". In addition, the pupil will have seen engineering in the real world through integrated work experience - a world away from most token work experience schemes - and they will have used, in industry and further education institutions, the sort of advanced and highly specialised equipment that schools could not possibly hope to provide.

We could write at length about projects and independent learning, and all the other advantages that are built into diplomas. It's not difficult to see who is (or should be) more attractive - whether to an employer or to a university - when they leave school. It excites us to think how much more a pupil who has been through this course will have to say at interview (be it for engineering or not) than a pupil who has done the standard three or four A-levels.

Yes, there are logistical problems - though none should be better placed to overcome these than independent schools - but they have been exaggerated by those who wish diplomas ill.

Is it not better to engage and work with Government and other institutions, thereby gaining the opportunity to shape rather than to observe and criticise from the sidelines? We are serious about sending some very bright pupils indeed to Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial to read engineering with the excellent background we will have given them through this exciting opportunity. And we plan to be in a position to comment from a stance of involvement rather than detachment.

Diplomas have had a difficult birth, but they should be looked at seriously, by both independent and state schools.

Anthony Seldon Master and Matthew Ford Assistant director of Studies, Wellington College, Berkshire.

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Anthony Seldon & Matthew Ford

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