Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Friday, 7 March 2008

Q&A: Diplomas in England

girl working with design and technology equipment
Diploma partnerships typically involve colleges, schools and others

The government is predicting that the new Diplomas could become "the qualification of choice" for teenagers in England's schools and colleges.

What are they?

Firstly, they are not to be confused with the welter of other diplomas that already exist such as BTec Diplomas (at different levels) or the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

Initially called Specialised Diplomas, they were the government's answer to an inquiry it commissioned into 14 to 19 education.

The inquiry, led by England's former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, recommended over-arching diplomas at different levels of attainment that would replace existing qualifications, academic and vocational.

Sir Mike painstakingly built a wide consensus around that idea.

But even as his report was finally published, the government denied there was any consensus and said existing GCSEs and A-levels would stay.

However, in 2007 the new Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, was saying: "If Diplomas are successfully introduced and are delivering the mix that employers and universities value, they could be come the qualification of choice for young people."

When do they start?

The first five Diplomas start being taught in September 2008 in the employment sectors of creative and media, information technology, health and social care, construction and the built environment and engineering.

In 2009 teaching is due to begin in five more: land-based & environmental, manufacturing, hair & beauty, business administration & finance and hospitality & catering.

Then in 2010 come public services, sport & leisure, retail and travel & tourism.

There should be universal entitlement to study this suite of Diplomas by 2013.

But in October 2007 Mr Balls also announced three new Diplomas in "academic" subject areas: science, languages and humanities.

This seemed to be a sudden thing. Even two months later the government's own online fact sheets about the Diplomas did not mention these new lines of learning.

Consideration was also given to having a Diploma in applied science, even though science GCSEs have just been revamped to try to increase young people's interest. The idea was dropped.

There was also to have been a General Diploma from 2011 to recognise achievement in the equivalent of five A*-C grades at GCSE level, including English and maths. That has also been scrapped.

But in March 2008 there came another twist: the announcement of Extended Diplomas - with beefed-up core maths and English content and the scope for more academic students to show what they could do.

So are the main Diplomas the new non-academic option?

Officially not. The government insists they should be designed to appeal to academically-minded youngsters just as much as doing A-levels, for instance - but with a workplace slant.

They should combine practical skills and theoretical learning.

Former Education Secretary Alan Johnson described the Diplomas as "the missing link - creating the mix of vocational and academic education which we've lacked for so long".

But he also said, famously, that the reforms could "go horribly wrong" if Diplomas were seen as second-best.

How vocational are they?

An important factor in their development is the involvement of employers in the ongoing design process, via sector skills councils.

One of the key shortcomings of the existing system that the Tomlinson inquiry sought to address was employers' complaints that it was producing youngsters who, on paper, were well qualified but who lacked workplace skills.

The QCA describes the engineering Diploma, for instance, as being for all learners but particularly those seeking knowledge and skills "in the broad context of the engineering industries".

Its purpose is "to introduce learners to the world of engineering and to captivate their imagination in recognising the potential of a career in engineering".

It will cover a number of topics within various themes. For instance, in "discovering engineering technology" learners will look at practical skills, computer-aided engineering, routine maintenance, materials and electronics.

But what this learning does not do is turn them into engineering workers. It is employment-related learning, not job-related training.

How will they compare with other qualifications in classroom time and in the school league tables?

The way the various levels of Diploma are graded will be aligned with GCSEs and A-levels:

  • Foundation - takes broadly the same time to do as four or five GCSEs, worth five grades D-G in GCSE terms
  • Higher - takes broadly the same time to do as five or six GCSEs, worth seven grades A*-C
  • Advanced - takes broadly the same time to do as three A-levels, worth 3.5 A-levels
  • Progression - takes broadly the same time as two A-levels and is aimed at those who cannot complete a whole Advanced Diploma.

The university admissions service, Ucas, has decided the new Advanced Diplomas will be worth the equivalent of more than three A-levels in university entrance points.

They will attract a maximum of 420 Ucas tariff points, split between a maximum of 300 for the "principal and generic learning" components and another 120 for additional and specialist learning.

A top grade A-level attracts 120 points and an A grade in an AS-level has 60.

It appears the new Extended Diploma at advanced level will be equivalent to 4.5 A-levels.

So what do schools think?

One of the most challenging aspects of their development is that any one school is unlikely to have the expertise or equipment to deliver all the Diplomas.

So they are being developed by partnerships and will typically involve schools, colleges and perhaps employers working in collaboration.

Students and teachers will have to be more mobile and flexible: travelling to different centres for different courses and/or working via information and communication technology.

But there are concerns about the sheer complexity of operating Diplomas, with all their requirements, alongside the existing qualifications system.

They raise obvious issues of transport - especially in rural areas - health and safety, curriculum and timetabling, employment conditions and cost.

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