Positive options

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Leading figures from business, higher education, schools and colleges and a representative of parents volunteered to fly the flag for the 14-19 diplomas and help drive the reforms forward. They are impressed and enthusiastic about the future.

Sir Alan Jones

Schools and colleges face a big challenge in raising awareness of 14-19 diplomas among employers during the next year, says Sir Alan Jones, the chairman emeritus of Toyota and the Government's diploma champion for employers.

Few businesses are aware of the new qualifications, he says. "Everything is moving steadily and positively, but no one should underestimate the size of the challenge."

Disillusionment among employers over previous vocational qualifications is likely to make the task tricky. "We have to generate credibility," he says.

"We've been down these roads before. This time we have to show the diplomas are based on secure foundations."

The growing reputation of sector skills councils, which have helped to develop the diplomas, means some bosses know the qualifications are coming.

But Sir Alan believes it is vital that small and medium-sized businesses offer support at a local level, partly so that there are more opportunities for students to gain work experience.

The diplomas, he says, have the potential to provide young people with "a head start" in life by equipping them with communication and problem-solving skills.

Parents will also be a key factor in ensuring the diplomas' success. "We have to start at an earlier age than 14. We have to make sure young people start to take a different perspective on life from 11 at the latest," he says.

Sir Digby Jones (right)

Employers must build stronger relationships with schools and colleges so that more young people get a taste of the workplace, says Sir Digby Jones, the Government's skills envoy and a former director general of the Confederation of British Industry.

He wants employers who are dissatisfied with the skills of teenagers leaving full-time education to join forces with teachers and make 14-19 diplomas a success.

Many employers are disillusioned because first-time job applicants are unprepared for work, he says. Rather than wash their hands of the problem, they should get more involved with schools and colleges.

Sir Digby suggests registers should be drawn up showing employers that have links with schools and which schools are not linked to any employer.

He wants school to be a more challenging experience.

"We've got to meet employers part-way," he says.

During seven years as head of the CBI, Sir Digby saw teachers start to gain a better understanding of employers' needs, but says: "They still need to spend more time asking employers what they want, rather than saying 'This is what you're getting'."

Diplomas will give teenagers the opportunity to learn job skills as part of a formal education; universities must offer full support and become the fulcrum of knowledge transfer for learners of all ages, he says.

"The culture of our society still places a university education beyond everything else. We have to get people to understand that a diploma is right up there and holding its own with A-levels."

Lee Hennessy

Mother-of-three Lee Hennessy is cautiously optimistic about prospects for 14-19 diplomas, but says they must not be seen as inferior to academic programmes.

In particular, she hopes that the diplomas will motivate pupils such as her 13-year-old son to recognise the need for subjects such as English and maths. She says many pupils fail to see their relevance until they have a chance to use them at work.

"In principle, they are a really good idea. Too many children leave school without useful qualifications.

"If they are as exciting as they sound and engage kids, then they have to be welcomed."

Ms Hennessy also backs the idea of pupils studying away from their usual school or college for part of the week, especially if it gives them access to better facilities.

But she is concerned that the titles of some diplomas are too similar to those of old general national vocational qualifications, which were often seen as more suitable for less academic pupils who struggled with GCSEs.

"We have to believe that this is something a bit more radical and is not a second best," she says.

"Diplomas must be a really positive option for some children, and maybe for all."

David Turrell

Staff and students are looking forward to the opportunity of devoting more time to specialist subjects through diplomas, says David Turrell, headteacher of Sir Bernard Lovell school, near Bristol.

His staff will closely study the final specifications for each diploma, he says. "We need to ensure that they are designed in such a way to be of real advantage to students."

The school, which is part of the Kingswood partnership of six schools and an FE college, has already helped to design a curriculum framework that includes 14-19 diplomas. As a forerunner to the new qualifications, it introduced Btec diplomas.

"We are very keen to offer a level of specialism for pupils and feel the 14-19 diplomas could be the vehicle for that," says Mr Turrell.

"I see them as an extension of Btec-type programmes and want to see how we can integrate them into statutory elements of the national curriculum."

Mr Turrell believes the diplomas will be attractive to students of all abilities and popular with teachers. But it is just as essential that they gain respect beyond schools and colleges. "We expect them to have a robust form of accreditation to ensure that they have credibility with employers and higher education," he says.

Deian Hopkin

Universities must appreciate that teenagers studying a specialist diploma have not narrowed their options any more than other students, says Deian Hopkin, the vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

"Many understand that. The task is to make sure that all universities understand it," says Professor Hopkin, who chairs a government board promoting the diplomas in higher education and also the partnership that is devising the diploma for society, health and development.

Higher education institutions are used to accepting applicants with a range of vocational and academic qualifications - only a minority apply with A-levels - but work still needs to be done to increase awareness of 14-19 diplomas by the middle of next year, when universities start to compile their 2010 prospectuses.

Professor Hopkin says alignment with existing admissions procedures rests on agreeing an appropriate tariff for the diplomas based on levels of achievement. "Universities need to understand what the actual equivalences are," he says.

A "sharper relationship" between the diplomas and foundation degrees will increase flexibility for people wishing to enter higher education and create new routes to the full range of level 4 (degree equivalent) qualifications, he says.

"If you've gone down one route, it should not lock you up. That's particularly important for late developers and people who change their interests."

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