The realities of vocational learning
But the problem goes deeper. The example you give is of pupils gaining a diploma in construction and the built environment who might have a paper round and still have this accredited to them. Of greater concern is that pupils aged 14 might be misled into believing that specialising in a diploma of any kind will qualify them for employment at all.
As I understand it, 14-16 diplomas offer work-related learning and may motivate those who find GCSEs too academic, but they will not in themselves qualify pupils for any form of job. In any diploma area, further specialist training will be needed. Whether the pupil aims to become a bricklayer, plumber or engineer, they will be no further on in their career after completing a level 1 or 2 diploma at 16 than if they followed a range of alternative courses, then sought the same career.
You rightly state that heads connected to the diplomas say there is a huge commitment to making them work. Yet there are others, myself included, less connected to the diplomas, who have real reservations about recommending that any 14-year-old should specialise in one area. As heads, we may have to plan for the implementation of diplomas, but that does not mean we all believe they are the right answer for pupils of this age. From 14 to 16, pupils should still be exploring the opportunities available to them, not committing themselves to one area.
All being well, as diplomas are developed, the Government will review the underlying thinking, and restructure programmes of study to enable young people to undertake GCSE-sized vocational courses in one or more diploma areas, alongside traditional non-core GCSEs.
It is hard to see the educational benefit of a 14-year-old taking a diploma in construction and the built environment for the bulk of their "option" time instead of taking a GCSE-sized course in the same subject alongside, say, GCSE design and technology, GCSE art, and GCSE business studies, leaving until later the decision on career-based specialisation.
GCSE-sized diplomas would enable young people to keep their options open and provide a variety of experience, which many disengaged youngsters need. They would enable them to explore alternative vocational opportunities before committing themselves and would provide a direct equivalence between the resized diplomas and GCSEs, giving them equal currency in the jobs market.
Jeff Hanna, Headteacher, The Connaught School, Hampshire.