Vocational vexations

WITH NEW vocational diplomas due next year, the Government has pledged support for school leaders. But will it be enough? Preparing for the qualifications is already time-consuming, warns the Association for School and College Leaders.

The first five diplomas are being introduced by consortia of schools and further education colleges in 2008. By 2013, all 14 to 19-year-olds will be entitled to choose a diploma from 14 subject areas. Heads say collaboration with partner schools and colleges is an area in need of support. In particular, they cite practicalities such as timetables and how to transfer staff and students between sites.

Sue Kirkham, former president of ASCL and head of Walton high school in Stafford, said: "People are saying it's occupying a large part of their working week now."

Walton high is part of a consortium of schools and an FE college, due to offer the diploma from 2009. Mrs Kirkham says her consortium has solid foundations - Stafford's secondaries have a history of post-16 collaboration. But she worries about newer partnerships: "There are going to be greater training needs for those areas which haven't so far worked collaboratively," she said.

The head of a comprehensive in one such area, due to be among the first to offer engineering diplomas next year, said his partnership of schools was "pretty grim".

"It's not particularly well-founded at all," he said. "Some of us are deeply committed to it - and others, if they turn up to one meeting a year you're lucky."

He and his staff are enthusiastic about the diplomas and he hopes that eventually up to half of his students will take them. But he says parents have still not heard of the new qualifications and his students have responded negatively to the idea of swapping a variety of options to specialise in a vocational subject.

"The kids like choice at 14," he said. "They quite like doing four or five optional subjects and they like breaking up their week with a bit of drama, art and design and technology.

"The idea that all that will be removed to specialise horrifies many children. There needs to be a large, well-co-ordinated programme to support delivery."

The Government's package of workforce development, initially consisting of three days' face-to-face training for teachers, has been called "inadequate" in a report by the Commons education and skills select committee. Heads, college principals and managers are getting their support from the National College for School Leadership and its FE counterpart, the Centre for Excellence in Leadership.

The NCSL staged events in March attended by more than 300 staff after extensive research into support needs. Workshops and seminars are planned for June and July as well as a support programme that will be available from September. This will be tailored to the needs of the 145 successful diploma consortia.

Toby Salt, strategic director of school leadership development at the National College, said: "NCSL and CEL recognise the challenges in implementing the diplomas and are pleased that feedback from our initial conferences has been positive. We welcome approaches from consortia and are happy to tailor our programmes to meet their needs wherever possible."

* Consortia with particular requests should email: 14-19@ncsl.org.uk

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