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Diplomas reaching crunch time

Schools and colleges across England are about to find out whether they have been selected to take part in the "most important education reform going on anywhere in the world".

Specialised diplomas, which were first described in this way by Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority last year, take a big step towards reality next week.

The new work-related courses are meant to end the perennial snobbery towards vocational education, with academic high-flyers taking them alongside the disaffected. However, there are already concerns that schools will not want to release their highest achieving pupils to study for the diplomas in other institutions.

On Tuesday, local partnerships will find out whether they have been approved to run the first of the new courses from September 2008. Some 1,127 bids to run the diplomas in one of up to five subjects have been put together by groups of schools, colleges, work-based learning providers and employers, advised by local authorities.

But only a minority are expected to be unconditionally approved by the Government, through a vetting process known as the Gateway, to run the new courses.

Hundreds of others are likely to be given conditional approval, to offer diplomas in 2008 or 2009 in engineering; health and social care; creative and media; construction; or information technology.

The TES asked councils across the country for information on their plans.

Some of the responses provide a snapshot of how provision could alter.

In Cornwall, all 31 schools and three further education colleges are involved in a joint bid to run all five versions of the diploma from 2008.

In Kent, vocational learning centres for 14 to19-year-olds, set up in 12 areas of the county at a cost of pound;12 million, will be focal points of activity. Among them is the Thanet Skills Centre, Margate, opened in September thanks to a pound;2 million grant from Kent county council and sponsored by companies including Peugeot and local small businesses.

Some 134 pupils are attending the centre one day a week. Peugeot donated three cars for motor maintenance students to work on, while a mock shop has been set up for retail pupils. In Birmingham, around 50 schools are involved in diploma bids. A new centre for the engineering diploma may be set up in the grounds of the former Rover plant at Longbridge.

In Swindon, where all schools are involved, companies including BMW, Honda and the local hospital are bid signatories.

In Ealing, west London, a building firm, Mears, and a hairdressing company, the Ginger Group, are jointly sponsoring a new work-related learning centre, to open in September. Their employees will be helping to design diploma courses and teaching.

Many local authorities were enthusiastic about their plans. But, anecdotally, there are concerns. Worries include the relationship between schools. Under the diplomas, they must work together.

Two local authorities expressed concerns that some heads would steer more academic pupils away from diploma courses, because they feared having them educated elsewhere could put at risk their league table rankings. One adviser said: "Headteachers are nervous about releasing some of their good kids for diplomas.

"Some heads are thinking, 'Diplomas are only for level 1 (GCSE grade D-G) students,' and some are thinking ,'I'm not risking my five GCSE A*-Cs with qualifications that are not proven.'"

Another question will be whether grammars and independents will get behind the new courses. Last year, a survey of 56 local authorities found that many grammars were uninterested.

Maidstone grammar, in Kent, is part of a diploma bid and is planning to set up a music technology suite. However, Paul Smith, deputy head, said the school preferred courses such as Btecs and National Vocational Qualifications to the diplomas. A survey of private schools by the Independent Schools Council found three-quarters were uninterested in diplomas.

Local authority advisers are also concerned about a lack of government information. The TES understands there are also worries within the national Learning and Skills Council. Some see the courses as too academic.

Comments from Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, that the new courses could go "horribly wrong" led to a report that the advanced diploma was being scrapped. But the Department for Education and Skills wrote to partnerships to say this was not happening.

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