Diplomas put employers' needs first

Judith Moorhouse is an executive member of the National Union of Teachers

"Hewers of wood and drawers of water" spring to mind when considering the Government's latest proposals for 14 to 19 education. If ministers had been wise, they would have taken the advice of Sir Mike Tomlinson, whose 2004 report called for a unified, multi-level diploma system. This was intended to provide a "ladder" for students to learn at their own pace and right across the 14 to 19 phase.

What we have instead are employer-led specialised diplomas. Without harnessing the expertise of teachers, lecturers, their representatives and awarding bodies, schools and colleges are expected to decide which diplomas they want to offer and if they have the resources to deliver them.

Vocational qualifications are expensive to teach because they require specialist equipment and accommodation. That is why the intention is for many schools to form partnerships with FE institutions or sixth form colleges. Collaboration is the name of the game. That's a really good idea, except that competition is the reality; competition that has been encouraged by the Government.

So the profession is about to embark upon an initiative that not only has little input from practitioners on whether the content is relevant and teachable, but also has not so far addressed the issues of day-to-day management. How, for instance, is the movement of students between institutions to be funded? What about provision for students in rural areas? From where are QCA chief executive Ken Boston's "industrially qualified staff" to come? What professional development is being offered and what time has been allocated to undertake any training that is on offer?

The intention is for there to be 200 specialist vocational schools. We are already aware of 50 "trailblazer" schools. Only two or three of these are academies, but there are now proposals for networks of vocational academies in both Manchester and Birmingham; local learning partnerships sponsored by local employers and backed by the local authority. Thus employers will play a direct part in shaping educational outcomes and the workforce of the future. Their needs are paramount, not those of the students.

Will elite state or private schools be queuing up to join in local learning partnerships? One suspects not. They'll want to concentrate on qualifications such as the international GCSE and the International Baccalaureate, in order to maintain exclusivity and ensure direct routes to Russell group universities.

Specialised diplomas will intensify the Government's programme of both covert and overt selection. We must act to ensure that a coherent curriculum entitlement is available - one that meets the educational needs of all young people.

This is an edited version of a speech to the National Union of Teachers'

annual conference

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