A qualification of our age, but of what use?

29th June 2007 at 01:00

Last week, we reported on the difficulties colleges are experiencing in preparing for the new 14-19 diplomas. And there are further problems on the horizon for the new qualification, argues Mick Fletcher

There is a touch of the emperor's clothes about the new 14-19 diplomas.

Nobody wants to be seen as undermining them but, privately, most informed observers express doubts about whether they will succeed. Will they have parity of esteem with A-levels? Will they motivate those not fully engaged by school? Is thereany hope they will pull off the more difficult trick of doing both at once?

A key worry was highlighted recently by the Education and Skills select committee nagging away at the question of who the diplomas are for. They are not vocational, that term has been dropped. They are not occupational, they are no longer even specialised.

A senior QCA spokesperson, struggling to answer the question recently was forced to resort to the assertion that they would appeal to learners who wanted something more contemporary than A-levels.

The use of such an empty euphemism has not got a good track record. It brought to mind "modern apprenticeships", different from apprenticeships but we can't say how; secondary modern schools, second-class but we can't admit it - hardly a good omen.

The strategic confusion over the purpose of the diplomas has been compounded by serious flaws in the design process. Although they are not vocational, it has been employer bodies who have led their design.

It is, of course, useful for the curriculum to reflect skills that employers value, but it is also necessary to balance this with content that will motivate pupils. The experts - teachers and awarding bodies - have been all but excluded. Only once the content has been decided have those who understand pedagogy and assessment been allowed to have a small say.

The damage caused by this process shows in a serious lack of practical content in many diplomas. While colleges are keen to work with 14- to 16-year-olds, lecturers rail against the difficulty of teaching kids construction without touching a brick.

The Increased Flexibility Programme, which places 14- to 16-year-olds in colleges, showed that the experience of practical activities could motivate those turned off by the academic track. But, in a forlorn bid for parity of esteem, too many of the diplomas seem to have designed out the very thing that could have made them successful.

The author is a researcher and educational consultant

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