Partners steer new course
The government may insist that partnerships of FE colleges and schools are vital to the success of the new 14-19 diplomas, but in some areas they are not proving an entirely happy mix.
Next month sees the deadline for applications to the Department for Education and Skills from colleges, schools and local authorities to begin offering the new qualification in 2008. Initially, students will be able to choose diplomas in five subjects: construction and the built environment, information technology, creative and media, health and social care and engineering. By 2013, there will be a national entitlement for 14- to 19-year-olds to study towards any one of 14 diplomas.
The qualifications have a lot to live up to. These are reforms the Government favoured over Sir Mike Tomlinson's idea of an overarching diploma to replace academic and vocational qualifications.
The diplomas will, says the DfES, provide "an exciting, aspirational and stretching programme of learning for all young people", appealing to university candidates and those planning to enter the workforce, as well as those not in education and training.
FE colleges see themselves as ideally placed to offer the new diplomas with schools. But are they ready?
Maggie Scott, the Association of Colleges' director of learning and quality, said: "We are getting a mixed picture."
Well-established partnerships, where colleges have a track record of working with schools to offer vocational programmes to under-16s, are confident about the new qualifications, she says.
But there are concerns about those areas in which partnerships are under-developed. Many schools are expecting to be able to teach the diplomas in their classrooms, despite FE colleges having specialised facilities and expertise.
A recent report by the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education said that while colleges appear to be the most obvious providers, many are nervous of taking on new qualifications without a strong reputation, following their experience with vocational A-levels. Many have reverted to tried and tested Btec awards and are unlikely to want to switch wholesale to the new diplomas. Colleges are also concerned that some of the diploma courses may attract very few students and will be costly to run.
Partnerships are also finding it difficult to plan ahead. Under the current submission process to run diploma courses, schools and colleges have to say who will teach which part of a programme in 2008. They also have to estimate numbers of students who will take the diplomas, despite the fact that the qualifications are still being written and students and parents are largely unaware of them.
"It's a huge leap of faith on the part of schools and colleges to say 'Right, we think 30 young people are going to be working on the diplomas',"
said Ms Scott. "But that's what they've got to do - estimate exactly the volume of delivery for 2008."
A further pressure on colleges is that they are often expected to collaborate with schools on the diplomas amid a culture of competition as their local schools create new sixth forms.
The 14-19 partnerships represent a major challenge for the Learning and Skills Council, which will fund the new diploma and has the task of making these partnerships work. During its recent reorganisation, the LSC appointed local partnership directors to work with schools, colleges and private training providers.
Julia Dowd, the LSC's director of young people's learning, said: "This isn't going to work unless the partnerships work. That was stated clearly at the start.
"It's unlikely that any one institution could deliver the diplomas, so partnership working is a given."