The Big Question: Are Diplomas working and what can be done to improve them?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because five new courses have just been added to the Government's new Diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds which ministers have trumpeted as a potential replacement for GCSEs and A-levels – and which some people claim is the biggest reform to the education curriculum in England for two decades. It was launched in certain areas of the country in September last year and is being made available nationwide from this week.

What exactly is the Diploma?

A new qualification that combines academic and practical work-based learning. The five courses which have been available until now were: construction and the built environment; creative and media; engineering; information technology; and society, health and development. From this week students will also be able to take two-year Diploma courses in business, administration and finance; environmental and land studies; hair and beauty studies; hospitality; and manufacturing and product design. From next year courses will be available in: public services, sport and leisure, retail; and travel and tourism. By 2011 there should be 17 different courses available.

What is the idea behind it?

Employers and universities both complain that young people, despite their paper qualifications, leave school ill-equipped for the world of work or higher education. The Diploma was an attempt to address this. It was the brainchild of England's former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson. His plan was for an over-arching diploma scheme which, at all levels of attainment, would develop both academic prowess in maths, English and the other basics, but also develop the teamwork, creative thinking and problem-solving skills required in the workplace.

Mr Tomlinson wanted to broaden ways of learning so that less academic pupils were better motivated while cleverer students developed a wider range of skills than at present. He also thought this would keep pupils' career and educational options more open, allowing them flexibility to progress to further study, university or jobs.

His idea was for the Diploma to have a Foundation level equivalent to 5 GCSE grades D to G, a Higher level equivalent to 7 GCSEs grades A* to C; a Progression level equivalent to 2.5 A-levels; and an Advanced level equivalent to 3.5 A-levels. The GCSE would fall away, since it made little sense to have a "terminal examination" at 16 when, from 2013, the school-leaving age will rise to 18 for everyone.

The former Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, described the Diplomas as "the missing link" between vocational and academic education which the nation had "lacked for so long".

What has been the uptake?

Pretty poor. The new system, which the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said could replace A-levels as the "qualification of choice" within a few years, was taken up by just 11,400 pupils – around a quarter of the original estimate. Creative and media was the most popular subject area. Only 1,416 pupils were on Level 3 courses, equivalent to A-levels or BTec Nationals.

Some 200 students opted to do the course in one year rather than the two usual years. Their results were published last week. At the higher level – designed to be equivalent to seven good GCSEs – no students gained an A* or A grade. More than half were awarded a C and a quarter failed. Many who attempted the diploma were not included in the figures after failing the "functional skills" tests altogether.

Some 20,000 students are reported to be taking up the course this year. Fears about rising levels of youth unemployment could boost numbers. But heads in schools teaching the Diploma say many of them have found it difficult to persuade students and parents to opt for them.

What do enthusiasts for the Diploma say?

That education is even more important in a recession where there are fewer jobs for young people – and that the Diploma is now even more relevant as it gives greater options. A recent survey has shown that one in five young people have changed their minds about searching for a job after their GCSEs, and will now stay on in education or training.

The widening of options available will improve education take-up since different young people are motivated by different things, says Professor Alison Halstead, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at Aston University, who is one of the Diploma's most senior fans. "Diploma students have said that learning in the context of real life is motivating and engaging," she says. "It can provide a huge boost to a student's self-confidence to work alongside professionals who take their views and work seriously. In the current climate, it's impossible to deny how important these skills are. I firmly believe that Diploma students will go on to become future leaders in industry and commerce."

What about the critics?

Some fear that the Diploma will create a two-tier system. Had GCSEs and A-levels been abolished and different levels of the Diploma been taken by everyone things might have been different. But with both in parallel the Diploma just looks like a second class option for weaker students.

That fear has been underscored by the decision of 700 private schools to ditch GCSEs altogether, on the grounds that they are too easy, and enter pupils for the more demanding International GCSE. There are signs that some state schools will follow. "The Government's complex diploma," says David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, "looks like an expensive flop."

Further confusion has been caused by the different emphases placed on the Diploma by the two main parties. Labour sees it as an option for widening learning styles for all. The Conservatives seem to see it as a way of improving purely vocational qualification for the less able with A-levels remaining as the "gold standard".

The Government is rowing back on the more ambitious elements of the scheme. Plans for a Diploma in applied science, to try to increase young people's interest in the subject, have been dropped. So has the idea of a General Diploma from 2011 to equivalent to five A* to C grades at GCSE level, including English and maths.

So what will happen now?

A lot depends on the attitude of universities and employers. A few universities like Aston have said they will accept applications from all of the relevant Advanced Diploma subjects for its courses, including engineering and business programmes. Ucas have agreed tariff points for Advanced Diplomas. But a survey last week of 19 universities showed that 17 would expect at least one A level alongside the Advanced Diploma. Most are as yet unconvinced of the academic rigour of the Diploma.

And the effect in the workplace?

It will be at least a couple of years before enough Diploma graduates are entering the job market to be able to judge how the qualification is regarded by employers. And by then a Conservative government may have scrapped or downgraded the whole scheme. It is hardly a potent inducement to persuade students and their parents to sign up for the new project.

Should young people sign up for a Diploma course?

Yes...

* It combines academic and practical work-based learning to develop academic prowess

* The students who have done the Diploma pilot courses report that learning in the context of a real-life employer is much more motivating

* It keeps young people's options open at a crucial time for them

No...

* Unless you are too dim to get good A-levels grades which remain the gold standard

* Not if you want to go to university; Many universities say they will want to see more qualifications than just an Advanced Diploma

* It's unclear whether most employers will look favourably on Diplomas

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