A-level reforms: the Government's new diplomas are proving unpopular with schools

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The Independent Online

For an education conference, it was a glitzy affair. Few of the headmasters and mistresses of independent schools filing into the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Westminster just before Christmas had had any experience of being courted by Labour ministers.

The conference had been arranged to encourage independent schools to introduce the Government's new diplomas as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels. "Diplomas are a big part of our future," said Schools minister Jim Knight. "I am confident that independent schools will be eager not to just join in, but to lead and shape this future..."

Unfortunately for the Government, his confidence had been misplaced. "It was a hard sell," says one London headmaster, "but by the end of it a lot of us were even more convinced than before that we wouldn't be doing diplomas."

No independent school will be offering any of the first five diplomas that will be taught in the state sector from September. These are construction, engineering, IT, health and creative media.

But the reality is that not many state schools, who will get an extra £1,000 for every diploma pupil, will be introducing them this year either. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has said up to 40,000 pupils will be doing them, but the exam boards have suggested that this is an over-estimate.

The grammar schools have been making discreet inquiries of university admission tutors about how the advanced diploma – equivalent to three-and-a-half A-levels – will be regarded. Most have shelved any decision.

The system for delivering diplomas is a bureaucratic nightmare. Schools have to be in consortia; they may have to set timetables across schools so that pupils get a choice of diploma.

Pupils will then have to be transported between schools, colleges and workplaces. Each area has to have its own development partnership of schools, trainers, employers and higher education.

According to Geoff Lucas, academic secretary to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), only about a dozen independent schools have expressed an interest in offering diplomas.

"They may not take off in the independent sector," he says. "There is an endless list of reasons for not doing them. It is the size of them – they are a whole curriculum; half of the learning has to be applied; additional staff would be required; they have to done in partnership with other schools; and they haven't had a good press."

Since Ed Balls arrived at the Department, the Government appears to have changed its view of the diplomas. The settlement arrived at by Ruth Kelly, his predecessor – once she had rejected Sir Mike Tomlinson's advice to create an over-arching diploma for all 14- to 19-year-olds with content based on A-level, GCSE and vocational qualifications – was a dual system.

A-levels and GCSEs were the gold standard for academic education. What was to be created was gold-standard vocational education through 14 employment-linked diplomas.

Ministers now appear to be saying that diplomas should be the qualification of choice for many pupils. Schools are being told the higher diploma – which will count for seven GCSEs (grades A* to C) – should be done by those pupils who would previously have done vocational qualifications and high achievers who would do well at GCSE but are attracted by a "more contemporary and applied curriculum".

The advanced diploma – worth more than three-and-a-half A-levels (grades A* to E) – is for the full ability range.

Independent schools are sceptical about both the higher and the advanced diploma. They are not keen on the higher because it requires 14-year-olds to choose a vocational course. Of the advanced, most schools do not believe it is equivalent to studying three-and-a-half A-levels or that it will be acceptable as such to the leading research universities.

Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's School, in London, believes diplomas are the product of muddled thinking. "This Government almost has a phobia about academic excellence," he says. "It is launching a new qualification that ministers hope will give an academic gloss to vocational courses. It won't appeal to employers because it doesn't have the vocational content and it won't appeal to universities because it lacks academic rigour."

The key factor for independent schools is whether universities will want pupils who have studied diplomas. Publicly, universities are saying they will accept the advanced diploma. But the survey of admission tutors carried out in the 1994 group of research universities suggested that four out of 10 would not.

While the universities may want the qualification to succeed, there remains uncertainty about whether it prepares pupils for university courses. Admission tutors will be less confident of a qualification that has so much internally assessed content. Only half of the grade is determined by external exams.

Of the first five to be introduced, universities are likely to be most interested in the engineering diploma, as engineering degree courses are hard to fill. There are not enough applicants with the required level of maths and science – mainly because state schools are not producing them.

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge and head of the university's engineering department, is keen to see the diploma accepted by universities. He has been involved in the development of a maths unit that could form part of the diploma.

The unit would test the maths that is required to do an engineering degree. Parks is confident that high marks in the maths test and good grades across the diploma would allow diploma graduates to compete with A-level students.

Balls has already decided to introduce diplomas in academic subjects. In October he announced diplomas in science, languages and humanities. He also postponed the planned review of A-levels from 2008 to 2013 to give the diplomas time to bed down.

Schools across the country are being given the hard sell and journalists are left with the impression that Balls' reputation hangs on this reform.

The lack of interest from independent schools should worry the Government. Tim Hands, headmaster of Magdalen College School in Oxford, believes parents will not have confidence in a qualification rejected by schools that are free to pick their courses.

Bedford Modern School, in Bedford, has also written them off for now. "We aren't going to do them because they don't have the street credibility with our parents," says the headmaster, Stephen Smith. "Most of our pupils don't know what they want to do at 16 and they are better served by a balanced academic course."

Back in December, Jim Knight set out his ambition for the diploma. "I want to see the next generation of leaders of our society – our captains of industry, our head teachers, our top public servants, to go to schools offering diplomas," he said. Given the current level of enthusiasm for diplomas, that could be difficult to achieve.