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Schools ignoring diploma reforms

Many hope the vocational qualification planned for 2008 will simply go away

They have been described as the most important and ambitious education reforms taking place anywhere in the world. But few schools, it appears, know much about the new vocational - or "specialised" - diplomas that are to be launched within two years.

Many plan to ignore them in the hope they will just go away. And others say that league table pressures mean the diplomas, intended to transform vocational provision, are lower down their priorities than raising GCSE scores by a percentage point or two.

These are the findings of a survey investigating how local authorities, schools and colleges are preparing for the diplomas' introduction in 2008.

The courses are designed to solve a perennial problem: the perceived low status of learning related to work. They are aimed at 14 to 19-year-olds as alternatives to GCSEs and A-levels.

Five diplomas will be trialled from 2008 in volunteer schools and colleges.

By 2010 every pupil will be able to study any of these five subjects on demand. By 2013, schools and colleges across England will have to offer pupils a choice of 14 diplomas, at three levels each.

Two weeks ago, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, branded the diplomas as the biggest education reform in the world. But the survey of 56 local authorities from March to July found a "chasm" between the Government's ideals and the preparedness of schools and colleges.

Although 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds are already following vocational courses at college, provision is patchy. Half of the local authorities surveyed said some of their schools did not offer any vocational qualifications.

Asked to name the biggest barrier to implementation, 96 per cent of authorities cited schools' willingness to change. "Many schools were either poorly informed, antagonistic towards the change or expected the whole initiative 'to go away'," said the survey report.

Several local authorities could not interest grammar schools, in particular, in diplomas because they focused on GCSEs and A-levels.

Comprehensives with good GCSE results were also less likely to be interested. Jim Tirrell, co-author of the report, said these schools had more to lose by introducing new courses.

There were also signs that schools described by Ofsted as underachieving were also not planning for the diplomas. Their priority was improving the GCSE scores prized by inspectors.

Training staff to teach the diplomas will also be crucial. But one in five authorities did not include vocational training in their professional development options.

Local authorities called on the Government to do more to raise awareness of the new courses, one saying that an advertising campaign was needed. Only six out of 10 authorities had included them in their strategic plans.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "There's a widely held view that the diplomas are a very complex system. Schools, especially in rural areas, find it difficult to visualise how the provision will be put in place."

For more details on Challenges facing partnerships: current developments towards implementation of 14 to 19 reform in local authorities, email report was produced by the Leading Education Advisers, Consultants and Associates Network


So, what are diplomas?

They are employer-designed qualifications, offered at three levels: level 1 is equivalent to four to five lower-grade GCSEs (D to G); level 2 corresponds with five to six top-grade GCSEs (A*-C); and level 3 is comparable to three A-levels.

Students will take them alongside GCSEs in other subjects, and can combine them with A-levels. Work experience will be a compulsory element.

No school will be compelled to offer them. But by 2013, all will have to be working with colleges to ensure their pupils are able to study any of the 14 diplomas locally.

How they will be introduced?

In 2008, the first five diplomas - in IT, engineering, creative and media, health and social care, and construction - will be trialled in some schools and colleges.

In 2010, every pupil in England will have the right to study any of these five courses at school or at a local college. Diplomas on trial in another nine subject areas: retail, hospitality and catering, public services, land-based and environmental, manufacturing, hair and beauty, sport and leisure, travel and tourism, and business administration.

By 2013, every pupil will be entitled to choose from one of these 14 diplomas.

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