Editorial - Vocational debate won't die with jinxed Diploma

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Whether or not the Tories put it out of its misery, the need that gave rise to it remains

Watching the painful progress of Diplomas is like seeing a bullied child making a prat of themselves in the school play. You will them to succeed - everyone wants them to succeed - to rise above it all, to prove their detractors wrong. And then, despite focused thought beams and crossed digits, they still manage to fluff their lines and fall over the scenery. Now the Conservatives are considering a mercy killing (page 1). Are they right to do so?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the UK can turn out limitless numbers of students skilled in the nuances of a dead Regency novelist but not a would-be electrician with the respect or training she deserves. No one since Prince Albert has taken vocational education seriously. And we had to import him.

Few of the initiatives since his day have got off the ground. Fewer still were as ill-starred as Diplomas. Tony Blair was, and is, an extremely courageous politician. But his pusillanimity in the face of an antediluvian defence of A-levels was only matched by his lack of imagination. The result was a half-Tomlinson - an embarrassed compromise which recognised that although the vocational question was pressing, it wasn't nearly as urgent as the need not to disturb the voting middle classes.

The Diploma was born, complete with fabulous advertising, impracticable modules and dodgy testimonials. It was so complex that regional networks rather than single schools were needed to deliver it. It was so internally confused that courses in advanced maths were equivalent to basic health and beauty modules. When an ostensibly practical qualification is so theoretical that a Diploma in construction needs a course in bricklaying bolted on to it to keep pupils interested, something is seriously amiss (pages 34-35).

In retrospect, what finally did for the Diploma was the Government's desperate decision to tack on a few academic variants. This simultaneously muddied the waters over what they were designed to do and advertised Whitehall's lack of confidence in them. It was as if that bullied kid who was rather good at practical subjects had to endure an embarrassing parent praising their single "ology".

Should the Tories put the diploma out of its misery? Yes. But the need that gave rise to it remains. Something needs to replace it. And what this sorry saga shows is that whatever it is has to be honest in its aims and confident in its delivery. Above all it cannot be considered in isolation from its academic cousin if it is to work and be accepted.

A comprehensive education needs a comprehensive qualification. The English should learn from the French, who have successfully re-tooled the Bacc with a suite of vocational options without trashing a venerable academic brand. We could do the same and call it the, er, A-level - an exam that would cater to 70 per cent of pupils, as its French equivalent does, rather than a meagre 46 per cent.

So farewell, then, our doomed Diploma. You'll be back. Just called something else.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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