Schools are insufficiently committed to delivering the new 14-19 Diplomas, leaving colleges frozen out of partnerships and students lacking access to specialist vocational knowledge, a new report has found.
There is an ongoing problem with collaboration between schools and colleges due to a history of local competition between the two types of institutions in some areas, says the report published this week by the Association of Colleges (AoC).
Collaboration underpins the principle of the Diploma, which aims to marry academic and vocational education, the report continues.
"Progression into, and entitlement to, the full range of Diploma lines and levels is at risk where there continues to be insufficient commitment from schools, which limits the contribution colleges can make to partnership delivery and, in some cases, prevents colleges from any form of involvement," it says.
Debbie Ribchester, senior 14-19 policy advisor at the AoC and the report's main author, said much of the problem was due to an insufficient commitment by schools to offer advice and guidance to students that promoted Diplomas as viable alternatives to GCSEs and A-levels.
"Sometimes colleges have planned to do Diplomas, but the students have not come through from schools," Ms Ribchester said. "This is because performance measures encourage schools to keep their more able students to sustain their league-table positions. To get true collaboration, we need consortium-wide measures of performance."
The report suggests competition is compounded because Diplomas are complex and demanding qualifications best suited to students with high levels of prior achievement - in other words the kind of students that schools predict will do well at GCSEs and A-levels.
In fact, the report, based on a survey of 133 general, sixth-form and specialist colleges, says that Diplomas may be too demanding for some, especially those who have not done as well as they might at GCSEs and are considering doing the post-16 one-year higher Diploma.
Ms Ribchester said this could mean colleges are reluctant to take on apparently weaker students in case they drop out or fail and thereby affect an institution's performance and funding.
The report says the functional skills element - offering maths, English and IT - of Diplomas may also be too difficult, and demands a review. It calls for Diplomas to be offered in bite-sized chunks matched to students' strengths and weaknesses, with recognition at each stage of achievement. It also recommends looking at the balance between theoretical and vocational elements.
Funding was highlighted as an issue by many colleges, which said they wanted direct funding for Diplomas rather than funding paid to the lead institution - a school, in the case of 14-16 Diplomas.
Ms Ribchester said the difficulty for some colleges was "getting funding from the schools", partly because schools are funded per learner and this is where the cash tends to stick.
The lack of funding is felt most keenly by colleges when covering hidden administrative costs associated with setting up and running Diploma programmes, which require considerable timetabling and other organisational arrangements.
Published alongside the AoC's recommendations as part of the report were responses from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It said collaboration between schools and colleges was improving and that the School Report Card will include an assessment of partnership working. It's researching Diploma costs, with a report due in January.
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