Many in education and training were hugely disappointed when the Government rejected Mike Tomlinson's proposed unified diploma framework early last year. This was widely seen as a missed opportunity to make sense of 14 to 19 education, to meet the needs of all young people and to ensure parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications.
But Tomlinson's blueprint is history and we must now move on and work with what is in its place. The Government's new specialised diplomas are still a radical and potentially exciting development. The first five diplomas in information and communication technology, health and social care, engineering, creative and media, and construction and the built environment, are due to be offered in England in September 2008. By 2013 any 14- to 19-year-old will be entitled to take a diploma, choosing from 14 lines of learning.
Designing these new qualifications is no mean feat. After all, so much is riding on them. They have to please and meet the needs of employers, who have for years complained of the inadequacy of existing vocational qualifications. And more crucially, the diplomas have to be able to motivate young people to stay on in education and training post-16, as well as re-engaging those who have dropped out. They have to give them not only the specialist skills their particular subject and sector requires, but also generic skills to help them into higher education and employment. And that's just getting the design right. Apart from the need to create credible, high quality qualifications, there are also monumental logistical challenges here in delivering them.
At the AoC and Sixth Form Colleges' Forum 16 to 19 conference last week, schools minister Jim Knight said that with the launch of the new diplomas, teaching and learning will start to feel very different for the class of 2008. The Government is depending on collaborations of schools and colleges to offer them, and there are many such excellent partnerships. Institutions such as Boston College in Lincolnshire, and City of Bristol College have a solid track record of innovative work with schools to broaden choices at 14.
But these partnerships do not come easily nor overnight - they are based on years of hard work and commitment and they will not flourish in a system of increased competition and contestability.
We need to ensure that our colleges have coherent systems in place for measuring what they do. They need to be able to play on a level field with schools and they must have good quality resources and support for workforce development.
The Government is keeping A-levels and GCSEs alongside the new diplomas - and with that a major issue remains unresolved. The very problems Tomlinson's proposals were designed to address - that A-levels lack breadth and challenge - are still with us, with continued criticism from employers and universities about young people's lack of broader skills. So there remains a challenge to modernise A-levels as well, to overcome these limitations.
Another crucial question is this - what will happen to the existing vocational qualifications available to young people - many of which do have high credibility with employers? The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was recently reported as saying that there are no plans for specialist diplomas to replace existing vocational qualifications, but longer term Department for Education and Skills projections appear to leave no room for vocational qualifications other than diplomas.
If this happens then we need to be very, very sure of what we have created. We have to be 100 per cent certain of their quality and their ability to do all that's expected of them because what will happen if they don't? For my money it would be better to keep our current diverse but complex qualifications system, rather than replace it with a tidy one that may be easier to administer and satisfies the bureaucrats, but which will not help the learner.
If we do not get it right, it may well be a case of better the devil you know.
The author is Chief Executive of The Association of CollegesReuse content