'Nobody really wanted it': the Diploma meets its doom

Exam boards deliver fatal blow to Labour's beloved qualification

Only last year it was still being touted by ministers as an "increasingly popular" serious alternative to A-levels.

But late last week, England's major exam boards confirmed what many have known for some time - the Diploma is dead.

Although hundreds of millions of pounds and huge amounts of political capital under Labour were spent supporting the qualification, the AQA, City and Guilds and Edexcel all announced they are to stop offering Diplomas, in some cases as soon as next September. The OCR board is still "reviewing" the components of the qualification it offers. But it will be a surprise if it decides to continue with the Diploma as a whole.

The final trigger has been the Government's decision to end the "Diploma aggregation service" it provides to calculate results from the component parts of the enormously complex qualification. The service will finish in 2013, the year by which Ed Balls, the former Labour education secretary, predicted the Diploma could become "the qualification of choice".

His forecast has fallen massively short. Just 9,069 of the Diplomas aimed at GCSE-level pupils were completed this year, compared to 5.15 million GCSEs. So far, only 15,063 candidates have obtained a Diploma at any level since its launch in 2008.

Meanwhile, at least #163;295.6 million of Government money has gone on developing the Diploma, funding consortiums and training staff to deliver it, and subsidising transport so that pupils could reach lessons. The total works out at #163;19,624 per successful candidate, nearly four times the annual #163;5,083 average per-pupil school funding in England, and only covers Diploma spending until the end of March 2010.

This week's news received a weary response from academics. "Nobody really wanted it, did they?" said Professor Robert Coe, an assessment expert at Durham University. "Schools, colleges and the consumers of exams - employers and universities - never seemed to buy in.

"It was being pushed very strongly by Government but if it hadn't been for that pressure nobody would have looked at it twice."

It could be argued the Diploma was doomed by being rooted in political compromise rather than educational need. The qualification emerged from the Labour government's reluctance to accept the overarching academic and vocational Diploma recommended by the 2004 Tomlinson report before a general election in case it was seen as threatening A-levels. Instead it opted for work-related Diplomas to be offered alongside traditional academic qualifications, which would remain free-standing.

Close involvement from employers and industry in the Diploma was supposed to give it credibility. But it suffered huge difficulties from the start, many due to its complicated structure, with a minimum of six components. They made the Diploma difficult to understand and sell, and expensive, awkward and time consuming to deliver and co-ordinate, with students expected to travel between schools and colleges for different parts.

Some schools said it fell between two stools - requiring too little practical work for pupils who might usually opt for vocational courses, with its size severely limiting the breadth required by more academic pupils. Exam boards complained the Diploma was introduced too quickly, and Ofqual, the regulator, admitted it was too complex.

Today all pupils currently working for a Diploma will be able to complete it. And some of the individual components such as principal learning qualifications and extended projects will survive as stand-alone qualifications. But the Diploma itself is gone.

At the end of August, Edexcel said: "We will be continuing to offer the Diploma as long as there is sufficient demand from schools and colleges."

It seems that in the end that demand just wasn't there.

A lingering death

- 2005: The Diploma is announced as part of a political compromise in the wake of the Tomlinson report, which had called for an overarching academic and vocational version.

- 2007: Labour education secretary Ed Balls attempts to revive the spirit of Tomlinson with a series of "academic" Diplomas to be followed by a review of A-levels in 2013.

- 200809: Only about 11,000 pupils opt for the Diploma during its first year, well short of 40,000 target.

- 2010: The Coalition scraps academic Diplomas before their introduction. The fate of existing work-related Diplomas are left in exam boards' hands.

- November 2011: The boards give a thumbs down.

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