Born in the USA

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
The new College Diploma - an award unique to further education - has come from the grassroots. It began with civic links between Birmingham and Chicago. To its architects, it already provides what David Blunkett is seeking in the new two-year foundation degree Chris Webb, chief executive of City College, Birmingham, was part of a municipal delegation visiting American colleges. And what he saw of their qualification system impressed him.

"I became convinced that the American associate degree had some things that we could very much learn from," he says. "I also believed it would be very stimulating for staff and students."

The US model is a broad, unitised system where students build up 60 credits to get an associate degree - they can then move on to a full bachelor version. It suits a range of levels and is flexible - students can leave and then go back to top up their credits.

Chris Webb and other principals came to believe that the associate degree model had much to offer the lifelong learner. "We keep reforming the supply side, we restructure funding councils and we merge colleges. But we're not doing enough to stimulate demand.

Initially a small group of colleges joined forces to develop their own two-year associate degree programme, in partnership with Harold Washington College, Chicago. The first students began in September 1997; now 500 students in English colleges are taking it.

From this, the College Diploma was born. In November 1998, a steering group met to develop the award which would be a hallmark qualification for FE. The diploma is intended to act as a stepping stone between further and higher education and employment. Adults could work towards it at their own pace, being awarded credits as they complete each chunk of learning. The aim is to pilot it from September and introduce it the following academic year.

Phil Butler a manager at City and the diploma's steering group co-ordinator, says: "We took the strengths of the American system, kept the strengths of the British system and put the two together." One of the strengths of the diploa - on which the new foundation degree must draw - is that it has come from the grassroots of FE, he says. The American model upon which it is based has been tried and tested in colleges, and the resulting diploma presented to some 80 "critical friends" from the sector.

Individual colleges have also applied their own local needs to the model. For instance, Tower Hamlets College was concerned with entry students, whereas Cornwall College looked at how it would fit in with HNC students.

The award has also been developed to fit in with the Government's planned reforms in Curriculum 2000. PhilButler said it works well with the new unitised curriculum, and would recognise credits gained by 16 to 18-year-olds.

As the Government announced its degree proposals, the steering group was due to meet the leading awarding bodies to obtain a Kitemark for the new award from the British StandardsInstitution. Colleges are consulting local higher education providers and employers.

"From our experience of working on the associate degree programme, what you have is a flexible curriculum where there is a different way of recognising student achievement," said Phil Butler.

"Americans can't understand how a student in the UK can work for a year or two years and then be failed and walk away with nothing. What we were after was something which celebrated students' success as they achieved it."

He believes the diploma will serve the needs of adult learners as well as able A-level students seeking a fast track to university, or another string to their academic or vocational bow.

"It will actually encourage people to come into the system, people who have failed already, those who haven't got qualifications from the school system and have been made to look failures.

"They would come here, very nervous, into the post-19 sector. They may do something at entry level, and for the first time get a qualification that counts. And doubly so, they get recognition within a national framework that might encourage them to go on and do something else."

Martin Whittaker

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