New diplomas in chaos weeks before launch

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The Independent Online

The Government's flagship new diplomas are in chaos just weeks before they are due to be introduced in the classroom as a substitute for A-levels.

Scores of teachers have little clue as to how the diplomas should be taught, said Andrew Broadhurst, the chairman of Voice, the teachers' union formerly known as the Professional Association of Teachers, at its annual conference in Daventry.

Mr Broadhurst, a grammar school teacher from Lincolnshire, warned yesterday that claims by the Government that diplomas would be recognised by university admissions tutors would prove to be "extremely optimistic at best and downright disingenuous at worst".

His comments came as figures released to MPs confirmed that ministers were expecting 20,000 pupils to start diploma courses in September – instead of the 50,000 target set by ministers.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "Millions of pounds have been spent on developing the new diplomas, which risk being a massive flop."

The controversy over the diplomas threatens to present Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, with a second major policy worry after the failure to deliver the results of this year's national curriculum test results for 11- and 14-year-olds on time. Mr Balls has staked his reputation on the diplomas – claiming that in a few years they could replace A-levels as the route for students to follow.

But Mr Broadhurst told the conference: "Staff will be starting to teach the diploma, or parts of it, in September with little or no understanding of how the whole thing works."

Mr Laws added: "The diplomas are turning out to be ludicrously complex and by making them compete with ... A-levels there is a real concern that they will be seen as second-rate." He urged ministers to introduce an overarching diploma – covering A-levels and GCSEs – as recommended by the inquiry into exam reform by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson.

Five diplomas – media studies, health, engineering, IT skills and construction and the built environment – will be offered in September. A further five will be launched in 2009 with a total of 17 onstream by 2011.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We know there is much to do to raise awareness and understanding of these new qualifications, which is why we have started a lengthy communications campaign to inform young people, parents and teachers."

Dr Geoff Park, Cambridge University's head of admissions, said Cambridge was impressed by the engineering diploma and one on land development being offered in the second phase – but suspected that the rest in the first three years would not be considered for admission.

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