As final course outlines are approved this week, Ed Balls says young people and parents need to be persuaded abouts the merits of reform. But will the new qualification have parity of esteem with A-levels and GCSE?
NEXT TERM is crunch time for the "world's most important educational reform" the new diploma qualifications. Will they prove a hit or a miss with thousands of students who must soon start deciding whether to opt for them?
Ed Balls, the new Children, Schools and Families Secretary, admits the jury is still out on the new courses, which will begin in selected areas of England in five subjects from September, 2008.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority approved the final outlines of how the new courses will look this week, bringing to an end phase one of its development.
Since taking over from Alan Johnson in June, Mr Balls said he had been impressed by the commitment of all those working on the new work-related courses.
He had also been encouraged by the exam boards' detailed plans for what pupils will be taught. Last week he highlighted a string of companies already backing the diplomas, including Rolls-Royce and British Gas.
Elite universities were also likely to support the courses, he said, although a recent survey by ACS International Schools found only four in ten admissions officers thought they were a good alternative to A-levels. Most thought they would lead to a two-tier education system.
But Mr Balls said of the diplomas: "It is the publication of the diplomas themselves and universities and employers coming forward and giving us their views that is going to be the decisive thing.
"The proof of the pudding will be very much in the eating. It will be what they say which will be the most important thing in persuading parents and young people to do this. There is a lot of work still to be done. But at the moment I think we are going in the right direction."
It hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement but ministers know how much is riding on getting what is a uniquely complex reform right.
It is 18 months since Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, first used the description "the world's most important educational reform".
With the UK having one of the lowest staying on rates at school post-16 in Europe and its yawning gap between the highest and lowest achievers, finding a vocational route that has parity with academic qualifications has long been the Holy Grail of education.
Many thought Mike Tomlinson had found it in his 2004 report which proposed to abolish GCSEs and A-levels and replace them with a four-level diploma. His over-arching diploma was largely welcomed by the education establishment. But it was rejected by Ruth Kelly, then the new education secretary, who felt unable to kill off the so-called gold standard of A-levels.
Instead the Government unveiled specialist diplomas; work-related qualifications that will have to compete for pupils alongside a glut of other vocational awards, including Btecs and GNVQs. Since then, there have been bumps, most notably when Mr Johnson, answering a question at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference in March, admitted that the reform could go "horribly wrong". This was a reference to it having to fight for acceptance alongside the A-level, the International Baccalaureate and, in private schools, the new Cambridge Pre-U, amid concerns it could be seen as second class.
Mr Balls has encountered some worry among teachers for himself. During a school visit he discovered anxiety about the new qualification was the staff's biggest concern.
He found them wary of "mis-selling" the new courses to teenagers, and lacking in understanding of the details. However, at a launch event last week at South Bank University in Southwark, south London, Mr Balls was sounding optimistic. The university is to be integral to the offer of engineering courses to students from across the borough and neighbouring Lambeth, with pupils from seven schools and two further education colleges travelling there for the more advanced elements of their courses.The diploma partnership also involves employers, including Transport for London, Ofcom, EDF Engineering and small businesses, many are centred on electronics.
The accent will be on learning about the work-related implications of the subject. For example, the university will help employers teach youngsters about the simple electronic concepts behind mobile phone technology. The teachers, employers, students and educationists attending the launch, were enthusiastic.
Sir Alan Jones, former chairman of Toyota UK and a diploma "champion" said the new qualification, with its focus on making learning relevant to work and its emphasis on soft skills such as teamwork and communication, was the future of English education.
But one of those attending admitted that Oxford and Cambridge had yet to sign up to back the engineering diploma. "We have to sell it, and we have to sell it well," he said. Another, who is developing teaching materials for the new courses, said: "One of our concerns is that the timescale is extremely tight. There's an awful lot to do between now and September, 2008."
The danger of rushing the reforms has been a widespread lament since they were announced more than two years ago. One local authority adviser said there were frustrations about attempting to promote diplomas to local employers without the detail of what it would look like when completed.
In addition, she said there was anxiety that, with the first courses due to start in only 15 months, there had still been no national marketing drive.
This final issue is due to be addressed from September with a radio campaign being launched in the areas piloting the first diplomas and a Government "roadshow" touring schools and colleges.
Year 9 and 11 teachers will be given packs to hand out at options evenings, while conferences for examinations officers, who will have to work out how to enter students for these complex qualifications, are also planned.
Marketing will be important, as there is no guarantee that the Government will achieve the 38,000 figure that local authorities estimate will take the courses in their first year. As Mr Balls has said, the proof of the pudding will be very much in the eating.
HOW THE NEW QUALIFICATION WILL BE INTRODUCED
Diplomas are new work-related courses being offered to teenagers as alternatives to some of their GCSEs and A-levels. They will be taught in a mixture of schools, colleges, workplaces and universities.
They put the accent on learning industry-related skills in practical settings, with functional and "soft" skills and project work integral.
The 14 different types of diplomas, which will be available at three levels, are being launched in selected schools in three waves:
2008: Construction; engineering; information technology; creative and media; society, health and development.
2009: Business and finance; environmental and land-based studies; hair and beauty; hospitality and catering; manufacturing and design.
2010: Public services; retail; sport and leisure; travel and tourism.
2013: all 14-19-year-olds will be able to opt to study any diploma at any of the three levels.
WHO'S BACKING THE VOCATIONAL ROUTE
Government: Ministers and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are talking up the importance and scale of the diplomas. But former education secretary Alan Johnson let slip in the spring that they could go "horribly wrong".
Business: Last week a string of companies including Rolls-Royce, British Gas, RWE npower and Toyota UK endorsed the diploma in engineering. The diplomas have also been designed by business. Thousands of firms have been consulted and exam boards have worked to employers' guidelines.
Higher Education: Institutions such as South Bank university are helping to deliver the diplomas, but Oxford and Cambridge have yet to come on board. A survey indicates four in ten admissions tutors see them as a good alternative to A-levels. The support of universities will be crucial to the courses' success, as at the highest level, students are supposed to be able to qualify for courses at the Russell Group institutions. .
State schools: Teachers have complained they are poorly informed. Ofsted and the National Union of Teachers have said teachers need more training before the diplomas are introduced. However, regional awareness-raising events earlier this year saw teachers reacting positively to the new courses.
AND THOSE WHO ARE NOT SO SURE
Independent schools: The sector is very cautious about the diplomas. Two years ago, a survey found that only 28 per cent were offering vocational courses of any kind. Another poll, nine months ago, found that three-quarters of independent schools were either not aware of the diplomas or not interested. None had any firm plans to offer them.
Grammar schools: Selective schools also appear sceptical. A survey last year from that grammars and high-performing non-selective schools were most reluctant to embrace the new qualifications, perhaps because they had most to lose from change.
Oxbridge: Oxford and Cambridge, like many universities, will wait to see the detail of the new courses before making decisions on whether or not to endorse them. Part of the problem for them could be that many admissions tutors find it difficult to keep on top of the detail of all the qualifications on offer to would-be undergraduates. Research last year by the Nuffield Foundation charity found some universities felt insecure about making offers to students who had taken vocational courses for this reason, and felt happiest with A level success.
Examinations officers: Much of the administrative work surrounding the new courses will fall on examinations officers. Some are uneasy about this responsiblity. Training courses have been organised by the Government for the autumn to address this.