Diplomas won't take off unless colleges are given more freedom

7th November 2008 at 00:00

The fact that there have been fewer than 12,000 enrolments for the new diplomas - compared with a target of 50,000 - must be worrying the Government. Any amount of spin - that it's quality not quantity that's important in the first year - cannot disguise the fact that the new diplomas have failed to fire the imaginations of teenagers or their parents.

It may seem premature to call for a review, but unless major changes are made soon, the diplomas will never deliver on the scale that is envisaged.

There are two main problems. First, the new diplomas are occupationally focused rather than being vocational or skills-related. As experience in colleges has shown, the success of many post-16 qualifications is based on the fact that students learn to do things that are job-related. In this respect, the new diplomas just do not deliver.

Second, there is the insistence that diploma delivery must be through partnership working. This is based on the mistaken belief that no single institution has the skills to offer the full diploma on its own. There may in theory be benefits in schools and colleges pooling their strengths, but the operational complexity of making this happen should not be underestimated.

Let's imagine a college is being expected to remain in a positive diploma relationship with a school that has just announced its decision to open a sixth form. For many, this would be seen as collaborating with the enemy. Yet, in reality, almost all colleges would have little difficulty in running the new diplomas independently.

There are areas where the system is working, but the scale of operations is invariably small. Even the most optimistic are at a loss to see how they will be able to offer all 17 diploma lines across four tiers by 2013.

Reservations about curriculum design and the relative lack of practical skill content, together with the difficulty of ensuring students achieve proficiency in functional skills, are compounded by the challenges of creating joint timetables across institutions, not to mention the transport needed to link them.

Getting employer "buy-in" is also proving a challenge. Support from big names is welcome, but it is the involvement of smaller firms that will determine whether the work experience requirement can be met. In the present economic climate, many partnerships are already struggling to find the support they need.

What is also becoming clear is that the diplomas cannot be introduced on the cheap. Sooner or later, additional monies or a transfer of funds from schools to colleges will be necessary. In the meantime, low take-up means there are insufficient diplomas on offer and too few enrolments to warrant the timetable restructuring involved.

Whatever happens, it is essential the Government does not phase out existing qualifications until the newcomers prove their worth. No doubt, this will slow down their implementation, but it is nevertheless sensible given the difficulties inherent in bringing about changes of this scale.

So what's the answer? First, give colleges the freedom to offer the new diplomas independently of local partnerships. Second, ensure there are significant opportunities for vocational skills to be developed. Third (and most controversial), have a serious debate about whether colleges should be allowed to admit 14-year-olds directly on to their programmes. This may be the only way vocational provision pre-16 can really succeed.

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