Can Diplomas become a driving force?

20th November 2009 at 00:00

Contrasting views from further and higher education offer insights on the future success of the vocational qualifications.

They give students too many choices at too young an age

The real problem with the Diplomas is that there are too many of them. When Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, promised to transform vocational education in 2005, she said the Diploma would be available in 14 broad subject areas at levels 1, 2 and 3. She had committed us all to 42 new courses - later 51 - and an entitlement for young people to choose any one.

The number 14 came from a reference in the Tomlinson report to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's framework for sectors and subjects. But Mike Tomlinson was not proposing a definitive number of subject areas, simply that the framework was a useful starting point. Tomlinson recognised that specialisation would probably rise with the level of study: it might be sensible to have 14 lines of learning at level 3, but didn't follow that there should be 14 Diplomas to choose from at age 14.

To the heart of the problem: how do you advise a 13-year-old embarking on a level 1 or level 2 Diploma in Year 10 which one to take? Suppose they have an interest in business - should they take the business, administration and finance Diploma? Or might they prefer retail business? And what about the IT Diploma, which covers how organisations work, how people work well with others, and how technology can be used to create innovative solutions?

Business features in other Diplomas, too. In hospitality, there is a focus on "business and finance in hospitality as well as other areas like human resources", and both travel and tourism and hair and beauty studies focus on employability, personal presentation, customer interaction and innovation - and, in reality, not very much at all on doing hairdressing or cooking food.

At 13, going on 14, it is far too early for young people to make informed choices about which "businessy" Diploma they might take. A more generic approach is needed that enables young people to learn about aspects of business in an exploratory way, and to be able to see and experience the transferability of the skills they meet.

Diploma programmes could focus on the generic and transferable skills of the future rather than constraining them to an artificial sector construct which, as Tomlinson pointed out, is not a template for qualification design at all.

In the Rushmoor and Hart Partnership, Hampshire, we have adopted a generic approach to Diploma planning that has transformed our vision. Our business, finance and administration proposal comprises units where coursework can focus on retail, travel and tourism, hospitality, even hair and beauty, and will borrow heavily from the IT Diploma, which is already in its second year and with which it should probably merge. It offers wide choice in a managed setting.

Local solutions may emerge to create the coherence missing at the regulatory level, but what is really needed is reflection on Diploma design. We must deliver a Diploma-style education focusing on similarities between working skills rather than artificial differences through too many competing Diploma titles and development partnerships. This would enable 14-19 partnerships to focus on producing the most effective teaching, and reduce the need for young people to travel excessively to secure their entitlement.

Above all, we would have Diplomas that equipped young people to make informed decisions about progression and specialisation as they moved towards level 3 and prepared them for a working life in which were certain to move between jobs as sectors change and become obsolete.

John Guy, Principal of Farnborough Sixth Form College and former member of the Tomlinson committee.

Their skills base is excellent preparation for university study

We need to give 14- to 19-year-olds the right preparation for the rigours of a degree course if we are to produce the highest possible standard of future graduates. This means challenging them with academic learning, allowing them to experience new environments such as the world of work, and giving them the freedom to plan and think for themselves.

These qualities can be found in the advanced Diploma, which offers students excellent preparation for higher education.

Undergraduates starting our courses need independent learning and thinking skills. Young people taking the advanced Diploma are encouraged to think for themselves, having had to plan and complete their own extended project and other assignments on the course. Through these challenges, they develop time-management, presentation and teamwork skills - vital to success at university.

The Diploma is also academically demanding. Students undertake principal learning about their core subject area, with opportunities to acquire, develop and apply knowledge and skills in real-world, sector-related contexts. And the Diploma includes additional and specialist learning, allowing them to expand their knowledge base into other areas of interest. This means advanced Diploma students can take established qualifications such as A-levels as part of the course, not as an add-on.

As with any applicant to undergraduate study, Diploma students must meet the entry requirements of the specific course. It has always been the case that young people applying for, say, a medical degree will need different A-levels or equivalent qualifications from applying to study engineering, and that some places and subjects ask for higher grades than others. Likewise with the Diploma, young people still need to prove themselves academically. But Diploma achievers will arrive in higher education with the personal, learning and thinking skills required for success.

These are the reasons why the Diploma has strong support from many leading universities, including Leeds. Indeed, a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research in August 2009 shows many universities support the breadth of skills and range of learning that Diploma students develop.

At Leeds University, we look forward to receiving applications from advanced Diploma students, who will begin university in September 2010. We will formulate offers on an equivalent basis with other level 3 qualifications and have developed admissions statements for our faculties. For example, our school of medicine says it is "happy to consider the 14-19 Diploma in society, health and development, plus A2 chemistry".

The Diploma is an outstanding new qualification, and we are excited about the impact it will have on broadening the skills base of our students.

Professor Michael Arthur, Vice-chancellor, Leeds University.

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