The Government wants vocational diplomas - fast. Hasn't it learnt the lessons of the bodged birth of AS and A2 courses? Warwick Mansell reports.
In my view, major changes to the qualifications system should have a lead-in time of at least five years." So said Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, summing up the lessons to be learned from the A-level regrading scandal of 2002.
Three years on, with a series of major new vocational courses planned, designed and to be offered to schools by 2008, has the Government learned anything about the dangers of rushed qualifications reform?
As employers, exam boards and bureaucrats embark on the introduction of a diploma qualification that aims to provide vocational courses of status for teenagers, the auspices are not good.
These groups are now frantically working to launch a range of work-related diplomas within three years so that the Government can get some "early momentum" behind its 14-19 reforms.
The new specialised diplomas were the centrepiece of February's white paper on 14-19 education, published in response to Sir Mike's 18-month inquiry into secondary qualifications, which had recommended the absorption of A-levels and GCSEs into an all-embracing new exam.
The Government rejected that advice, but pledged to launch a range of vocational diplomas. The first of these - in health and social care, engineering, creative and media, and ICT - would be offered for first teaching in 2008.
A further 10, in subjects ranging from hair and beauty to public services, would be available by 2014. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said they would transform opportunities for young people. The key to making them succeed where decades of vocational reforms had failed, she said, was employer involvement.
But the employers' groups complain that they have been given only months to design the first of the new diplomas.
Sector skills councils, the employer-led bodies set up to improve work-related training in 25 industrial sectors, are taking the lead in developing new courses.
In each of the new diploma areas, several of these councils are to work together in "diploma development partnerships" to thrash out the details.
But, nine months after the 14-19 white paper was published, these partnerships are only this month getting up and running. And the schedule looks eye-wateringly tight.
To meet their deadline of a September 2008 launch, full details of the new diplomas in the first five subject areas - a fifth "early" diploma in construction has been added since the white paper's publication - will need to be with schools by September 2007.
For that to happen, it is understood that exam boards need an outline of the new qualification from the partnerships - for them to work up in detail - by June next year. This leaves only seven months for the partnerships to consult employers and come up with a design for the diplomas within a broad framework set by the QCA (see box).
The partnerships have yet to begin consultation with workplaces about what should be included in the new courses.
And that is not the only issue the diplomas face. Teresa Bergin, head of sector skills and diploma development at the QCA, told a conference earlier this month that their design presented some serious technical issues.
The diplomas are intended to incorporate existing exams - including A-levels and GCSEs - alongside work-based courses. Ms Bergin said it would be "quite a challenge" to decide how much weight to give each of these components in grading decisions for the overall diploma.
There are other problems. The new qualifications are meant eventually to cater for more than 200,000 learners in each year group. Each is supposed to have "good quality engagement" with an employer.
The Government has not yet specified how much time businesses are expected to devote to training pupils, but it is clear that it will have to be fairly substantial.
Ian Carnell, head of skills at the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (Semta), which is leading the development of the engineering diploma, said this would place huge demands on workplaces.
He said it had been a struggle to provide the 15,000-20,000 work placements for students on young apprenticeships.
The diplomas are due to be offered nationally. Yet Mr Carnell said it was not clear what would happen if a student in a rural area - East Anglia, for example - wanted to take a course in a subject such as engineering where there were few local employers.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Creative and Cultural Skills sector council, said it had only agreed to get involved in the design of the creative and media diploma on the condition that the Government review the timetable next January to see whether it would still be achievable.
A senior source developing a diploma for a sector skills council, said:
"Seeking employer representation and input is vitally important, and there's not time to do it well. It is going to be really difficult to design a national diploma that is fit for purpose in this timescale."
The QCA voiced concerns earlier this year, calling for the launch of the diploma to be postponed until 2010. It said the diplomas needed to be trialled extensively. The 2008 deadline rules out piloting the courses.
With ministers apparently unwilling to countenance any delay, the QCA has since accepted the Government's schedule. Ms Bergin said she thought the timescale was achievable. The seven-month lead-in for the diplomas' design was not hard and fast, she said, as there would be time in the year following September 2006 for adjustments to be made to the make-up of courses.
Keith Marshall, chief executive of the building group sector skills council, Summit Skills - agrees that the schedule could be met.
The Department for Education and Skills said the development of the diplomas was "proceeding well". A spokesman said: "The timetable is challenging, but that reflects the urgent need to get high-quality vocational learning up and running."
The partnerships did not have to design complete diplomas by 2006, he said, but only their overall "learning outcomes", or objectives. Further details would be put in place in 2006-7.
But, given the concerns already outlined, why are ministers so keen on sticking to the 2008 deadline?
Apparently, they believe that leaving reforms longer than three years would see them losing much of their impetus.
In May Peter Housden, then director general of schools, told a QCA board meeting that "sustained early momentum" was essential for the success of the 14-19 reforms.
Some within the QCA strongly support the view of the DfES. One board member said that the sector skills councils were "dragging their feet" over reform.
So, is he right? The Blairite view might be to dismiss the councils'
concerns as the bleating of groups without the necessary dynamism to push through reform.
However, the DfES's stance is questionable. The need not to rush implementation was a theme running through not just the Tomlinson diploma proposals, but the Government's own 2003 green paper on 14-19 reform.
In it, ministers spoke of "the importance of major changes being taken forward with thorough testing before implementation".
The Tomlinson report recommended that the new diplomas be put into practice in 2014 after extensive piloting. The Government's plans bring forward that schedule by six years, and with no trials.
Sceptics believe that final phrase might come back to haunt ministers. In Sir Mike's second report on the 2002 A-level debacle, he highlighted the fact that the AS and the new A2 qualification had not been properly piloted.
"This resulted, in part, from the speed of implementation of the policy as determined by ministers," said his report.
The worry now is that history might repeat itself.
VOCATIONAL DIPLOMAS: KEY FACTS
* To be offered in five subject areas from 2008: health and social care; engineering; information and communication technology; construction and the built environment; creative and media.
* Another five subject areas to be offered by 2009: land based and environmental; manufacturing; hair and beauty; business administration and finance; hospitality and catering.
* Four more to be offered by 2010: public services; sport and leisure; retail; travel and tourism.
* Will be offered at three levels: 1 (pre-GCSE standard); 2 (GCSE standard); 3 (A-level standard).
* Each diploma programme to be offered in three sections: "principal learning", "additionalspecialist learning" and "generic learning".
* Principal learning: specific work-related learning for the sector covered by each diploma.
* Additionalspecialist learning: Chance for student to undertake in-depth studies.
* "Generic learning": Will include functional skills, thinking skills, a longer project and an individual learning plan (allowing the student the chance to discuss his or her learning programme with the school or college).
* Diplomas to involve 800 hours of teaching time at levels 1 and 2, and 1,200 at level 3.