Diplomas to usher in a brave new world

Diplomas are new, not just new qualifications but new study programmes, new approaches to teaching and learning and new employer-endorsed curriculums designed to give all 14- to 19-year-olds a fully rounded education and equip them with the qualities, skills, knowledge and understanding that they will need for entry to higher education and employment.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills was right when he said diplomas could go horribly wrong, but this was not a weakening of the Government's commitment. Alan Johnson and his ministers are rock solid on the principles of reform. The biggest threat would be a hurried introduction. If rushed, with inappropriate resources, the qualifications could fail. Therefore, diplomas will be phased in from 2008 and piloted until full entitlement in 2013. They must be well resourced and appeal to the full cohort.

The diploma is an educational qualification, not a vocational one, and it will make considerable intellectual demands. It is an education programme we have not used in this country, but our competitors have. In Finland, young people go into the workplace to learn high-order cognitive skills. I have seen this with 14-year-olds in other countries where teachers had regarded them as failures in maths.

No one can ordain the esteem of diplomas. These qualifications must earn their spurs.

If children are turned off by the curriculum they are offered, aren't we better to offer them something else? If we can't educate a 14-year-old about the Corn Laws and 1832 but can teach him or her skills through a vocationally specific course, isn't that better? An enormous amount can be learned from a health and beauty course; small business management, for example.

Level 1 diplomas will appeal to many, especially those 40 per cent with fewer than five A*-C grades at GCSE. At the higher levels, the diplomas will appeal to the full cohort. Children can receive an education in the full sense, through a vocationally based curriculum.

The first five diplomas will be on offer across parts of the country from September 2008. They will sit alongside occupational training - such as National Vocational Qualifications and apprenticeships - that is designed to make young people "job ready".

The learning style will certainly attract young people who prefer a practical context for their studies. Until now, the alternative to GCSEs for many of these students has been training courses such as motor vehicle maintenance, construction or hospitality. While these courses may be right for some students, the level 1 diploma offers another option.

At level 2, diplomas offer a tailored education programme as an alternative to traditional GCSEs or combinations of GCSEs with GNVQs, Btecs and other qualifications. Level 2 diplomas will appeal both to those who are likely to perform better in these programmes than GCSEs and to high achievers who would perform well at GCSE but who are attracted by more contemporary and applied study.

At level 3, diplomas are designed for students across the full ability range, many of whom will have taken GCSEs rather than a diploma at level 2.

Ken Boston

chief executive of the QCA

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