Page last updated at 15:30 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 16:30 UK

Should employers doubt Diplomas?

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

There is nothing more dangerous than friendly fire, the euphemistic military term that describes a deadly hit from your own side.

This week the government suffered just such an attack on its new Diplomas. It came from the employers' organisation, the CBI, which ministers had regarded as an ally in its mission to reform education for 14 to 19 year-olds.

The friendly fire was all the more damaging because it is just the latest in a spate of problems for the Diplomas, which are being introduced in England (but not the rest of the UK) from September.

Earlier this month, Professor Alan Smithers described them as "a disaster waiting to happen". He said the main problem was that the Diploma was "trying to be all things to all people".

Meanwhile take-up for the first phase of the Diplomas has been much lower than originally predicted.

The government attempted to brush aside these setbacks: contrasting the Smithers' criticism with the support from over 100 universities and arguing the low take-up will allow the pilot year to focus on quality rather than quantity.

'Over ambitious'

But the CBI criticism is in another league. The employers' organisation has been a strong supporter of the first 14 Diplomas, which range from Engineering to Construction and the Built Environment.

They should worry less about establishing equivalence with academic qualifications, or coherence across the range of Diploma subjects, and focus more on ensuring they are welcome to employers

Now, though, it has come out against the additional three Diplomas, announced almost as an after-thought last October, which are to be offered in the traditional academic areas of humanities, sciences and languages.

The CBI described these extra Diplomas as "over ambitious" and as an "unnecessary distraction".

Although ministers will find it hard to see anything positive in the CBI's criticism, it does highlight the genuine confusion that continues to dog these new qualifications.

If it forces greater clarity about the purpose of the Diplomas the CBI criticism could yet help, rather than hinder, the new qualification.

The fundamental issue must be to clarify just what sort of animal a Diploma is meant to be.

The employers are clear: it should be a vocational qualification. This, incidentally, was Tony Blair's view. He always referred to it as the "vocational Diploma".

By contrast, the government insists it is an academic qualification.

The decision to add three more Diplomas in academic subjects was specifically designed to reinforce this message.

Hair and beauty

It is certainly true that all Diplomas will include core academic skills, such as numeracy and literacy. Some will offer a high level of academic study.

It is also true that the Diploma will offer a route into university.

And, finally, it is the case that students can combine a Diploma course with purely academic subjects at GCSE and A-level.

But the fact remains that Diplomas in Hospitality, Hair and Beauty or Travel and Tourism look and sound to the layperson exactly like vocational qualifications.

The government denies this, arguing that a student who has gone through the Diploma route is not "job-ready" in the way a student emerging from an apprenticeship should be. They could still take a university route or look for employment in a different job area.

So why, you might ask, is the government so insistent that these are not vocational qualifications?

The answer lies in the long and unhappy history of attempts to develop vocational qualifications that can attract bright students and middle-class parents.

In short, the government wants Diplomas to have parity of esteem with A-levels and GCSEs.

The search for parity of esteem has become the Holy Grail of English education: many have sought it; no one has yet found it.

YTS scheme

The search goes back until at least the 1940s when the government embarked on - but failed to achieve - a vocational route for pupils attending the proposed new technical high schools.

The next failure came with various youth training initiatives. These were sidetracked in the 1980s by the YTS scheme that, instead of offering serious, long-term training, offered a quick-fix sop as an alternative to the dole queues.

While countries like Germany offered employer-based vocational training with a strong college-based element (through its dual system), England offered only a series of failed initiatives to everyone except those on the O-level/ GCSE and A-level academic pathway.

It is this background that explains why the government is so determined that the Diploma should be seen as the academic equal of GCSEs and A-levels.

Ministers do not want yet another failed vocational education initiative.

But they seem so fixated with this question of parity of esteem that they have taken their eye off the distinctive nature of the Diploma.

We have heard an awful lot about the Diploma's equivalence in terms of numbers of GCSE and A-level passes and UCAS points.

But we have not heard so much about the practical learning, employment-related skills, and vocational direction that the Diploma will offer.

Academic Diplomas

The CBI was happy to support the first 14 Diplomas because they included a broad vocational element, plus work experience, plus vital core skills.

Although the government is concerned about the "coherence" of the Diplomas, they should perhaps recognise that, for employers, there is no need to prove any equivalence between, say, a Diploma in Hair and Beauty and an Engineering Diploma.

Most employers will readily grab young people who leave school or college with a proven interest in their work sector, proven team-working and self-starting skills, and a sound general academic foundation, including good communication and maths skills.

They accept that students will not be "job ready" but they will have shown an aptitude for an employment sector such as travel and leisure or construction.

But once it was announced that the Diplomas would also be offered in academic subjects like sciences, humanities and languages that rationale became blurred.

The Diplomas have the potential to offer a real breadth of choice to young people as a middle-way between A levels and apprenticeships.

But to be successful they need clarity of purpose.

The Diploma should be pitched to learners of all abilities who prefer to learn in a context of applied knowledge and skills. Its great strength is that it is neither as narrowly job-based as an apprenticeship nor as purely theoretical as A-levels.

Those trying to sell the Diploma could, I believe, have a little more confidence in the product.

They should worry less about establishing equivalence with academic qualifications, or coherence across the range of Diploma subjects, and focus more on ensuring they are welcome to employers.

If students and parents see that employers like them, they could be immensely successful.

Which is why the government should listen carefully to the CBI's concerns about the "academic" Diplomas.

Diplomas 'could spell disaster'
06 Jun 08 |  Education
Bosses cool on academic Diplomas
23 Jun 08 |  Education
More universities back Diplomas
21 May 08 |  Education

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