The Government's flagship diploma qualifications have been almost universally shunned by independent schools, according to new figures seen by The Independent.
Only six fee-paying schools in the entire country have joined one of the consortia set up to deliver the new qualification, which is in its second year of being offered to pupils. Opposition MPs say the diplomas effectively reinforce a two-tier education system if they fail to appeal to the independent sector.
The figures also reveal that more than one in 10 state schools have yet to sign up – although the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) said this figure had been almost halved since they were compiled.
The figures, revealed by the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws, come despite the qualification being launched in a blaze of publicity – which stressed the fact that Cambridge University, in particular, was welcoming applicants who were studying for engineering diplomas.
"The vast majority of independent schools are still shunning the diplomas. These new qualifications are heading towards being a massive flop, with take-up being lower than the Government first predicted," Mr Laws said. "With a general election looming and the inevitable uncertainty and confusion this will generate, there is likely to be even less interest in them." He added that there would have to be a major review of both academic and vocational qualifications after the election.
Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents 250 fee-paying schools, said: "I'm surprised the number is that high. The trouble is [that] independent schools are hampered by the requirement to sign up to a consortium to deliver them all. They don't want to do that."
Mr Grant, who is headmaster of St Albans school in Hertfordshire, added: "There is also a question mark hanging over the programme as a result of the possibility of a change in government. The only chance they had was under the original proposal [by former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson] to have one diploma embracing all qualifications. That would have had a good chance of success. The pity about the present diplomas is that they are divisive. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't put money on their chances of survival."
The figures, contained in a Commons reply to Mr Laws by the Schools minister Iain Wright, show that there are still 349 state secondary schools which are not members of any of the consortia delivering the diplomas.
At present, the qualifications are being offered in 10 subjects, ranging from the highly rated engineering diploma – the maths content of which has been praised by Cambridge University as superior to A-levels – to leisure and tourism. One of the country's top fee-paying schools, Wellington College, is offering the engineering diplomas.
The DCSF said an update on the figures showed that they were being offered in 94 per cent of all state schools and colleges.
Mr Wright added: "Whilst, of course, our aim is for 100 per cent coverage for what is a very new qualification, the high proportion of schools and colleges involved in diplomas is truly remarkable. We are encouraging independent schools to offer diplomas and want to see them available in all parts of the schools sector. This is a new qualification, but one which is obviously becoming increasingly popular with pupils, teachers, employers and all types of schools and colleges."
Three academic diplomas – in science, languages and humanities – are due to be launched by the Government in two years' time. However, the Conservatives have indicated they will not go ahead with these, on the grounds that they duplicate what is already on offer in A-levels.
At the launch of the diplomas, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said they could eventually take over from A-levels as the natural way for pupils to progress at school.