Digging defences for the Diploma

25th September 2009 at 01:00

After initially experiencing considerable dismay at your front page headline ("Tories poised to dump Diplomas", September 11) and subsequent bewilderment at the lack of evidence to sustain it in the article, editorial and analysis that followed, I write to express my thanks.

While the temptation to produce a suitably apocalyptic headline on 911 was clearly too strong to resist, your words have only encouraged our 14-19 development team in Cumbria to press on with implementation of the full entitlement for that age group.

Diplomas have been a single, albeit significant, element of that entitlement since we participated in the pilots in 200506.

Although early days, the qualification's success is borne out by comments garnered from Diploma students across the county this September. To quote a new recruit to advanced engineering in Carlisle: "The Diploma is sweet!"

So, whatever the outcome of the general election, we remain determined to secure a 14-19 entitlement that enables all young people to make the right choices for personal success.

With or without Diplomas, this entitlement must incorporate learning pathways that provide opportunities for young people to develop and apply skills that are relevant to their lives in the 21st century. It seems, however, that the tired old justifications for retaining a curriculum and qualifications that have more in common with the ideals of the intellectual elite in the 19th century can still find a voice and influence within the "educational establishment".

Further, I guess that some of those hostile to Diplomas have been canvassing support from Her Majesty's Opposition at a particularly crucial time in the national political calendar. I presume that the majority of the anti-Diploma lobbyists are not suggesting that the entire 14-19 reform programme is "dumped" at the same time. Or maybe they are if its delivery is dependent on effective partnerships and a unity of purpose that runs counter to the preference for individual institutional autonomy and letting the "market decide".

I have no doubt that a good case can be made for cutting the costs associated with the necessary cross sectoral collaboration required to implement the full entitlement successfully. Presumably the same rationale can be applied to abandoning the commitment to raise the compulsory participation age.

I suspect, however, that someone has confused the Conservatives' proper desire to outline their educational policies with the more pressing priority of finding the least painful ways of cutting public expenditure if they come to power.

While we must all be ready to tighten the public spending belt in the current circumstances, there is a substantial difference between reducing future expenditure and wanton waste. The waste in this instance has to include the investment in time, energy and innovation that has been contributed by enthusiastic professionals working together up and down the country. More importantly, the lasting impact of scrapping the qualifications on the significant numbers of young people who are taking the Diploma route also has to be put into the waste equation.

To be frank, whether or not the prestigious "research intensive" universities are concerned about the academic rigour of Diplomas is of little consequence to the great majority. They, or perhaps the journalists who report on them, always will be "concerned". Their lack of support is therefore predictable, repetitive and a minor distraction.

Like all newly-introduced qualifications the Diplomas aren't perfect. We know that and are constantly reviewing how we can ensure our delivery models provide more flexibility for learners as a result. It may well be that they would benefit from some amendment, particularly for 14 to 16-year-olds. They are, however, a good base from which we can move the curriculum modernisation agenda forward.

Crucially, they have secured support from many employers whose goodwill we would do well to retain. A real example of "systematic child abuse" would be to continue to allow the curriculum and qualifications framework to be determined by administrative convenience and the philosophies of a bygone era.

Adrienne Carmichael, County manager for continuous learning, Cumbria.

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