HUNDREDS OF schools and colleges are expected to begin offering the Government's new specialised diplomas within two years, The TES can reveal.
Contrary to reports that ministers are poised to scrap the advanced level of the new work-related courses, local partnerships will be approved within two weeks to run them in the first five subjects.
The TES understands that many of the 1,127 diploma proposals, from schools and colleges in virtually every local authority, will be approved to start offering at least some of the subjects by 2009. The first subjects are due to include IT, society, health and development, engineering, creative and media, and construction and the built environment.
A source close to the approval process said: "Some of the bids have been very good indeed. A minority will be approved for 2008. The majority of those approved will begin in 2009."
The source said several hundred schools and colleges would be involved in the first two years, either teaching diplomas or sending pupils to take them elsewhere.
Despite the approval process, comments from Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, appeared to cast doubt on diplomas and have caused consternation among some local authorities.
Councils have been busy promoting and co-ordinating provision for the new qualifications, which ministers have repeatedly described as the most important education reform going on anywhere in the world.
But Mr Johnson told the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference last week that the new courses could go "horribly wrong". The danger was that, with universities currently non-committal about the new exams, they could be seen as second class or "secondary modern", especially as GCSEs and A-levels were being retained, he said.
"I was at a dinner with some Russell Group vice-chancellors, and talked to them about the need to recognise diplomas," he said. "They all looked at their shoes and shuffled round a bit and it became clear they didn't know what I was talking about."
But some local authority advisers have argued that some of the work-related courses are more stretching, at advanced level, than A-levels.
One said: "There are an awful lot of people working very hard to get this off the ground, and then he goes and shoots his mouth off. I felt it was a kick in the teeth."
Another said: "We need a big publicity campaign to show that diplomas have parity of esteem with A-levels. Unfortunately Alan Johnson is not helping."
Many advisers were concerned that the Government has not yet launched a major marketing campaign, even though the first students will start considering diplomas from September. Sue Kirkham, past president of the ASCL and head of Walton high in Staffordshire, told the union's annual conference that ministers should consider using television soap operas to raise awareness.
She said: "I would like to see young people in EastEnders and Coronation Street talking about doing diplomas. We need something more than just a leaflet. The diplomas have to be seen on the television and on the web with strong messages of support from universities and employers about their value."
Mr Johnson is not the only politician to have questioned diplomas. Estelle Morris, one of his predecessors, said she was "sceptical" about the plans because of their complexity.
The danger was that disadvantaged pupils could be disorientated by the amount of travel involved between schools and colleges. Transport is central to diplomas, as individual schools cannot run each course.
John Dunford, the ASCL general secretary, said that extra funding would be needed to ensure that transport and other complexities were resolved.
Funding beyond 2008 is unlikely to be settled until the summer's Comprehensive Spending Review.
Budget preview, page 24
BEAUTY BUS SASHAYS INTO TOWN
A solution to the transport difficulties likely to face diplomas is provided by Helen Robson, head of Christ the King school in Nottingham, writes Jonathan Milne.
She gave up sending pupils across town in buses and taxis for vocational courses at New College because of concerns about behaviour, drop-out rates and time. Instead, hairdressers and manicure lecturers arrive at the school every Friday in a pink "beauty bus", a fully kitted-out salon on wheels, and the motor vehicle engineering lecturers arrive in a lorry - though it is not pink.
"It does limit which vocational qualifications we can offer, but it's been beneficial for the students who participate," Mrs Robson said. "They no longer have to leave school at midday and mosey across town, sometimes having to take two buses." Photograph:Steve Hill