Ditch Diploma's extra weight to see it really fly

11th February 2011 at 00:00

When I visit colleges and schools, I am often told they will not be offering Diplomas in future. How could this forward-thinking qualification, written jointly by employers and educationalists, have lost its way?

Part of the problem is that the Diploma now appears to be no more than the sum of its parts. It is an umbrella qualification, whose individual components may be valuable but provide no extra value when added together.

The idea behind the "gateway" groups of consortia for the Diploma was that learners would benefit from the best from a number of centres and could travel between them. Despite its many good intentions, this process created something unwieldy and costly to administrate.

A case in point is the number of awarding bodies involved. A single exams officer, focusing on one diploma, could have up to six awarding bodies to deal with: possibly three just for the functional skills element, then potentially another one for "additional and specialist learning" and another for the project.

Learners have been disillusioned with the small element of practical work, which should be what grabs their attention and drives them to achieve.

They should be getting proper opportunities to use the industry-required tools, yet have often missed out on picking up the kinds of practical skills that their parents and potential employers would expect.

It is the functional skills element, however, that has ended up the biggest failure. It has proven out of reach of many of the learners, and is thus perceived as the most unfair aspect of the qualification. Functional skills should be embedded in all aspects of teaching the diploma, in ways appropriate to the student. Yet the functional skills are tested generically, in isolation.

If a school identifies that a student will be inspired by level 2 principal learning, but not achieve functional skills at the same level, is it appropriate to lower the aspiration to level 1 just to get the umbrella qualification?

The Diploma has also suffered in comparison with longer-standing qualifications, such as BTECs, with which providers are more comfortable. Colleges and schools know these use up fewer hours and option blocks. In contrast, the Diploma is unproven. We should keep its best bits and ditch the rest.

The principal learning section has been an outstanding success. Success rates at level 2, which range from 75 to 85 per cent and equate to five A*-C grades at GCSE, compare favourably with a traditional GCSE pass rate of 69 per cent. Removing principal learning from the offer would disadvantage young learners.

We should continue with the controlled assessments. Employers want to know that learner work is authentic, that the students can do more than just copy and paste. The project, too, is popular. Many colleges now offer it as a stand-alone qualification, not just to Diploma learners.

In terms of lines of learning, we need to reduce the number, amalgamating units and subjects. We should put greater focus on specialist learning, replacing the units (or elements of them) with specialist exams. But we must also give our young people the opportunity to view the world where industries work together.

Streamlining the Diploma would make it more financially attractive at a time when incentives to offer it are being removed. Colleges are already put off by its cost, resulting from the extra hours needed to teach it compared with similar qualifications.

Data from the Diploma Aggregation Service suggests some centres, with the interests of their students at heart, are already entering them only for the principal learning and not for the whole qualification.

It's time to campaign for the successful parts of the Diploma. If we make it less wieldy and more manageable, it will finally come of age.

Russell Joseph is the lead diploma assessor for the central London boroughs and a chief examiner with a large awarding body.

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