Bright sparks: How the diploma is lighting up the curriculum

Criticised as dumbed-down sop, the diploma is being embraced by students, who are thriving on its balance of the vocational and the academic.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls' new flagship diplomas are one of the most controversial reforms to the education system of the Labour government's tenure. There are reservations among members of the Russell Group of universities, the leading research institutions in the UK, as to whether they would accept students without A-levels.

Back at the chalkface, though, the diploma is getting a warmer reception. "It's much better than school," says Nathan Roberts, one of 12,000 guinea pigs on the first year of a Level 2 qualification (equivalent to a GCSE) in construction and the built environment.

Roberts, 15, is part of a 32-strong group of youngsters in Bassetlaw, north Nottinghamshire, taking part in the first pilot for the new qualification. A pupil at the Valley school in Worksop, he says of the two-days-a-week course: "It's amazing – much more hands on."

As a first step towards the diploma, the youngsters learnt practical skills, such as bricklaying and plastering. Later, they moved on to designing their own house, making sure they had two bedrooms and two front rooms. The course content shows that it is a mixture of the vocational and the academic, and not simply a curriculum for the sons of toil, as has been argued by some critics.

For Davida Shelton-Heath, also 15, and the only girl on the course, it is the academic side that appeals to her. "I want to be an architect and they told me this would be the best course to go on," she says. No existing GCSE course would give her the opportunity to design her own house.

"The course is mostly theory," she says. "It started off more practical and gave us the idea of how to be a bricklayer. I didn't like that so much. I'm a girl, and it's a bit messy for girls."

Keith Poyser, the lead co-ordinator for diplomas in Bassetlaw, is aware the new diploma is throwing up some gender issues. Davida will be his star turn if she succeeds and may be asked to act as a role model to attract more girls to take up the course.

During the last academic year, the construction and the built environment diploma was the only one on offer in Bassetlaw. From the start of this school year, three more will be introduced: engineering; society, health and development; and hair and beauty studies.

Again, there is an imbalance in the sexes, with girls opting for society, health and development and hair and beauty studies. Engineering, which is offered at the equivalent of A-level standard and is already recognised by leading universities like Cambridge as superior to A-levels for those wanting to study engineering, has been favoured by boys.

"It is an issue that we need to address," says Poyser. "For instance, hair and beauty studies is not just about cutting hair. It's about learning the business and admin skills to go into that industry."

The other issue that has to be negotiated is transport: how to get students to the centres where the resources for their courses are located.

For construction and the built environment, for example, there is a practical centre at Serlby Park School, which is a 20-mile drive from the southernmost school in the district, Tuxford. In fact, the only drop-outs so far on the course have come from Tuxford and have happened because of the difficulty students have in travelling to and from the centre.

Skilful French-style planning of the curriculum, whereby every school has a common timetable, has largely overcome this difficulty. But it may be more problematic when the entire diploma programme is up and running – with 17 different qualifications – in 2013.

At present, only 2.5 per cent of the age cohort is engaged in diplomas. But this will rise to an estimated 21 per cent by 2010, and then 35 per cent.

The diploma could alter the whole landscape of qualifications in England and Wales. Both Poyser and Dave Rich, head teacher of Retford Oaks school, believe the introduction of the diploma will affect the number of pupils taking other qualifications, such as GCSEs. This is something the politicians have yet to grapple with.

With fewer youngsters studying what is now seen as the universal qualification for 16-year-olds, against which all schools are measured in league tables, some GCSE subjects may have to be dropped for lack of candidates.

"There is a finite number of young people," says Rich. "If, say, 50 per cent are doing the diploma, you can't put on all the GCSEs you currently run because there won't be enough students to do them."

Traditionalists often throw up their hands in horror if the numbers taking geography and history GCSEs, for example, falls, but politicians may have to swallow hard and absorb the flak if they are determined to make the diploma a success. Geography, for instance, could be a key component of the land and environment diploma, according to Poyser.

There is, of course, a question mark over the future of the diploma because of the looming general election and the prospect of a change in government. The Conservatives have said they will axe the three most academically orientated diplomas in science, languages and the humanities due to be ready for study in 2013. But the others look safe in their hands.

Whatever happens, Rich is confident that the numbers taking diplomas will grow. "It will continue to expand – but perhaps just not as quickly as it would under Labour," he says. "I suspect numbers may reach a bit of a plateau, but I can't see them moving backwards when you look at the resources that have been ploughed into it."

Indeed, it would be an enormous waste to let the diploma wither on the vine, and a big blow to youngsters like Nathan Roberts and Davida Shelton-Heath who have been guinea pigs for its introduction, say Rich and Poyser.

The diploma has, after all, rekindled a fire for learning in many of the 14- to 16-year-olds who have opted to go down this route – so much so that some of them have forgotten they are in school while they are doing it.

Diploma timetable

September 2008: The first five diplomas are launched – society, health and development; information technology; construction and the built environment; creative and media; and engineering.

September 2009: Business administration and finance; hair and beauty; hospitality; environmental and land-based studies; manufacturing and product design.

September 2010: Public services; retail business; sport and active leisure; travel and tourism.

September 2011: Science, languages and the humanities. These are likely to be scrapped if the Conservatives win the next general election.

All 17 diplomas to be taught at three levels: Foundation (equivalent to five GCSEs at grades D to G); Higher (seven GCSEs at grade A* to C); and Advanced (3.5 A-levels).

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