By Hannah Goff
Education reporter, BBC News, at the AoC conference, Birmingham
The government's new flagship vocational qualifications risk becoming "sink courses" for "someone else's children" unless they are taught in the real world, college leaders have warned.
Courses should be taught in the workplace, say colleges
The first wave of specialised diplomas at the heart of the government's planned shake-up of 14-19 education are set to be taught in schools and colleges alongside A-levels by 2008.
But college leaders at the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham say they are being "watered down" as the vocational element is sidelined in favour of classroom teaching.
Instead they should be taught in the workplace or in real life settings, they said.
Principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester, Neil Hopkins, said: "There's a danger that the diploma may be watered down and could become a sink course if we are not careful.
"I fear that what will happen is that they will be used as a base to push those who are left behind. It will be the only way of dealing with those who are not good enough to get an academic qualification."
The key to their success was to keep the vocational element, he said.
Mr Hopkins gave the example of a diploma in construction which because it had little real life application and focussed on general skills rather than having a specialised focus changed into a more theoretical classroom-based qualification in town planning.
John Widdowson, principal of New College, Durham, said the diplomas must not become a form of cheap delivery for a certain type of student.
FE colleges had been teaching these sorts of vocational qualifications successfully for many years, he added.
Maggie Scott, director of qualifications and learning for the Association of Colleges, said there were concerns about the delivery of the diploma as it was the first time a qualification had been created by such a range of partners.
She said everyone believed the first wave of specialised diplomas, which 50,000 young people were expected to sign up for, would be successful because they were being set up by partners used to working with each other.
"It's the second and third wave that we have concerns about. There are new partnerships that are entering the arena and we are concerned that the quality remains (high)," she added.