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One-track minds

Tomlinson's vision of an academic and vocational transfer system is being lost, says Geoff Lucas

A new acronym was spawned over the summer - DDPs - diploma development partnerships. Set up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), these partnerships are now beavering away to flesh out the 14-19 White Paper's proposal for "specialised diplomas".

Available nationally from 2008 in the first five vocational areas - ICT, health and social care; engineering; creative and media; and construction and the built environment - there will eventually be up to 14 such diplomas by 2013.

However, the White Paper is devoid of any form of "open" or general diploma, as proposed by Mike Tomlinson.

The nearest we get to this is a "general diploma" at level 2, based on five A*-C grade GCSEs, including English and mathematics. But this is no more than a reporting mechanism, designed to respond to long-standing employer concerns about poor levels of functional literacy and numeracy.

Important though this is, any serious general diploma at level 2 would include, as a minimum alongside English and maths, a science and a modern language. Logic also dictates that there should be a diploma at level 1 (and, most would agree, entry level) underpinning the higher levels.

And what about advanced level? The 14-19 White Paper is silent on this issue. Nor does the QCA have a remit to develop any form of general diploma alongside the specialised vocational ones. So where does, say, the "specialist" in modern foreign languages, or history, or the sciences fit in the Government's vision of the future?

At advanced level, the absence of a general diploma looks certain to damage the credibility of "specialised diplomas" from the start.

The strength of the Tomlinson proposal was that it offered a truly inclusive national framework, encompassing all abilities, every type of qualification and real prospects of transfer between pathways through an elegantly-constructed framework.

The Government's White Paper offers neither. If anything, it gives students following mainly academic (or "general") qualifications an impoverished curriculum compared with their "specialised" vocational counterparts. Those on diploma programmes will, potentially, enjoy better preparation for adult life, including employment and higher education, through:

* the development of generic skills, now being called personal, employability, learning and thinking skills (or PELTS;)

* an extended project (a significant piece of assessed research);

* opportunities to apply learning in real contexts and combine practical and theoretical elements of their studies;

* serious careers advice and guidance linked to future progression opportunities.

Unless students whose specialisms are academic are included in a national system of diplomas, there is a danger of perpetuating the divide which Tomlinson worked hard to bridge.

Even the separate, more occupationally-focused apprenticeship routes are acknowledged by the QCA as needing to be designed so that "there are opportunities for progression" between them and the specialised diplomas.

What could be done?:

* the Secretary of State could use the White-Paper commitment to review the breadth of A-level programmes in 2008 as a platform for commissioning the development of a general diploma at advanced level, sooner rather than later; * the QCA could set up a "general diploma development partnership" to work alongside the other specialised groups. This would prepare the ground for introducing a general diploma in 2008; * professional associations (or cross-sector groups) could develop and pilot their own diploma; * an enterprising awarding body could develop a general diploma, working with institutions in this country and abroad, enriched by an international perspective; * individual schools, or groups of schools, could develop local diplomas, as has already happened with graduation certificates.

The good news is that "grassroots" innovation is alive and well, with the last two of these scenarios already happening. The bad news is that a government that claims to be inclusive is pressing ahead with something so exclusive. Like a three-legged stool with only two legs - the vocational and occupational - the Government's system simply fails to stand up.

Geoff Lucas is general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

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