Building a dream
Talks involving employers, awarding bodies and government officials began nearly two years ago, within months of ministers announcing the diplomas in the 14-19 White Paper.
By the end of 2005, diploma development partnerships had been set up for each of the first five diplomas, and by the start of this year a development partnership was in place for all 14.
Although most diplomas will include the work of more than one sector skills council, a lead council was appointed for each partnership to gather employers' views on what needed to be covered.
Mary Curnock Cook, the director of the qualifications and skills division at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says the White Paper made clear who ministers believed should take a leading role. "They wanted the new curriculum to be underpinned by what employers thought was important, as well as educationists," she says.
Geoff Fieldsend, the director of workforce development at the Sector Skills Development Agency, says skills councils were able to go straight to the horse's mouth. He says: "We wanted to go to the human resources directors in companies and find out what they really want."
He admits that converting suggestions by employers into specifications has been more of a problem for some diplomas than others and says development partnerships need to consult awarding bodies sooner rather than later. "We have got to get everybody participating all along the line."
While schools, colleges and higher education institutions are all consulted by the diploma development partnerships, the QCA decides whether the proposed curriculum meets wider requirements.
"Awarding bodies have to turn it into a qualification that can be sold in the marketplace," says Ms Curnock Cook. "The diplomas are not about training people for jobs. We are using them in the context of learning that will capture the imagination of young people."
Each development partnership reports to a project board set up by the Department for Education and Skills. This includes representatives from the QCA and the Learning and Skills Council, which will decide whether the diplomas will receive funding.
Progress is being monitored by a ministerial group that includes the chief executives of bodies such as the QCA, the LSC, the SSDA and the Quality Improvement Agency.
Jon Coles, the director of the 14-19 reforms at the DfES, is aware that some may consider the process rather protracted but points out that consulting thousands of employers takes time. While the DfES has been "closely involved" in developing the diplomas, it deliberately avoided a hands-on role. "It's not our job to second-guess the development partnerships on content or the QCA on how to structure the qualifications,"
For the first five diplomas, the QCA was drawing up rules for the qualifications while development partnerships were proposing what they should include. "The fact we won't have to do that in future waves is going to help us hugely," says Mr Coles.
Julia Dowd, the director of young people's learning at the Learning and Skills Council, says the LSC must act as a critical friend and make sure that they work in practice. "We are a national organisation but we reach right down to the front line through our partnership directors," she says.
"Part of our role is to think it all through."
Guidance that shows where teachers will need training ahead of the diplomas has been put together by the Training and Development Agency for Schools and Lifelong Learning UK, which is responsible for post-16 staff. "It is important that we have the right professional development for teachers and trainers who are going to deliver the diplomas," says Ms Dowd.
Once the first diplomas are offered next year, the LSC will monitor how they are being delivered. "If the quality is not satisfactory, then we won't spend public money on it," she warns.
The diplomas are part of wider 14-19 reforms that include changes to A levels and GCSEs. But Ms Curnock Cook, who spends much of her time on diploma issues, accepts they represent one of the largest projects undertaken in recent years. "It's different when you start from scratch and create a qualification structure," she says.
The process also demonstrates the value of consultation. "Other partners are setting the agenda but there are a lot of government bodies involved,"
says Mr Coles. "We can't succeed without these people because they are the experts."