Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 14:15 UK

Tories would scrap some Diplomas

By Mike Baker

college students
The first five Diploma lines are work-related, academic ones come later

The Conservatives have given the clearest indication yet that they would scrap the three new "academic" Diplomas.

The three Diplomas in humanities, languages and sciences are "a mistake and a wrong turning".

As for the other 14, "we will take stock when the time comes".

That was the stark judgement on the government's prized new Diplomas from the man who could be schools secretary in 2009 or 2010.

When I asked Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, to clarify the position a future Conservative government would take on Diplomas I was not expecting quite such a pessimistic view.

After all, 20,000 students have just embarked on the first 14-19 Diplomas, which are seen by many as the biggest curriculum reform in England for two decades.

Until now the Conservatives have kept a pretty low profile on Diplomas, steering a fairly non-committal line.

Yet head teachers and principals regard a clear, long-term commitment from the potential next government as critical if they are to persuade parents and students to sign up for Diploma courses.


So that was why, in front of an audience of heads, principals and employers at the CBI Education Summit, I asked Mr Gove to clarify what a future Conservative government would do about Diplomas.

14 employment-related
three academic
first five now being taught

He was scathing about the so-called "phase four" Diplomas, which will be in purely academic subjects, and made it clear they would be dropped immediately.

Why? Well, it is all down to the Conservatives' commitment to A-levels.

"The reason why the government is pressing ahead with these extra Diplomas is that they conceive the Diplomas as an alternative to A-levels and they wish to subvert them", said Mr Gove.

The Conservatives, he said, "wish to preserve and enhance A-levels" so see no role for the "so-called academic Diplomas".

So what about the other 14 Diplomas offering applied learning in career-related areas?

"I'd like very much to see them succeed," said Mr Gove, before then casting serious doubt on whether he thinks they will do so - or indeed should do so - in their present form.

"There are a number of worrying indications that the examinations are not as rigorous as we would like them to be, for example much of the assessment will not be externally monitored effectively."

Mr Gove added that many now considered that the Diploma offer was "not what it should be". So an incoming Conservative government "will take stock when the time comes".


These comments have highlighted the political split over Diplomas. The Conservatives will support them only if they become purely vocational qualifications.

clearly, there is going to be a battle for the soul of the new Diplomas

The government, by contrast, insists they are not vocational but "applied learning".

England's Schools Minister, Jim Knight, told the same CBI conference this week that the "phase four" Diplomas were "not introduced to replace existing qualifications but to extend the new styles of teaching and learning" to sciences, humanities and languages.

They would thus offer students options to "follow subjects in the way that works for them".

He insisted that Diplomas were a new concept, neither academic nor vocational.

They were not vocational because they focused on a "whole sector" not on a single discipline and included broader skills in English, maths and information technology.

As he explained, if young people knew exactly which job they wanted to enter, then the apprenticeship route might be more appropriate for them than Diplomas, offering practical instruction in a specific area.

So, clearly, there is going to be a battle for the soul of the new Diplomas.


Meanwhile, this week I also attended a gathering of heads and teachers who have just started teaching Diplomas.

Many had found it difficult to persuade students and parents to opt for them.

One college principal said she had asked a group of about 25 students standing outside her college what they thought of Diplomas - only to discover than not one of them had even heard of them.

Others were more optimistic, believing that once current students see the Diplomas as a good product they will start spreading the word to others.

Roy Blatchford of the National Education Trust had been talking to some of the new Diploma students.

He warned of the need for careful use of vocabulary - anything that made students think they were being treated as second class would be dangerous, he said.

He quoted one boy who had told him he did not think too much of the "functional English" he was doing as part of the Diploma when his friends were doing "proper English".

In response to the debate about whether Diplomas should be labelled as either vocational or academic, he said that, in the end, the label would not matter so long as the product was good.

And that will be determined by whether employers and universities welcome applicants with Diplomas. If they do, students will then believe the Diplomas have a financial pay-off.

The only trouble with that is that it will be at least a couple of years before enough Diploma graduates are entering the job market to be able to judge how they are getting on.

By then, a change of government could already have spelled the end of some, or maybe all, of the Diplomas as we now know them.

We welcome your comments:

So here we go again. One party introduces and the next diposes. How can we have a reasonable education policy in such circumstances? We need consensus and less disruption for the proper education of our children. Whatever happened to Royal Commissions which took a considered view on these matters - even if they did not always get it right.
Keith Swindells, Godalming, Surrey

I am currently piloting the Engineering Diploma at levels 1 and 2. I have to say the content of the units makes a welcome break from some of the courses we have had to put up with before (GCSEs). The marketing of the Diplomas by the government has been pretty much non existent. Besides the companies and teachers I work with directly nobody else seems to understand what they are or how they work. The information simply is not available or well publicised. It is very easy to "bad press" something when people only hear one side of the story and don't have access to all the facts. I welcome the BBC to come back to Ashby School and spend more time talking with me, my colleagues, companies we work with and more importantly the students and parents. I think there would be a very different viewpoint to report on.
Adrian Farmer, Nottingham

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