Chalk Talk: This diploma is supposed to be a rival to A-levels but it fails the test


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Spare a thought for what we used to call, in those bygone Labour days, "the Government's flagship diploma programme". Remember then-Education Secretary Ed Balls' assertion that it could rival or even overtake A-levels as the traditional route in education for 16 to 18-year-olds?

Well, the results of this year's diploma students were presented alongside those of A-level students last Thursday. Hair and beauty studies. Number of students: None. A similar story for public services, retail business, sport and leisure activity, and travel and tourism. Then again, environmental and land based studies: 12. Hospitality: five.

To be fair, 1,172 students studied for the advanced level diploma – twice last year's number – but it is hardly the take-up of which Balls had dreamt. We were presented with two pieces of paper showing the results of the advanced diploma and the progression diploma – but asked the difference between the two, the chief executives of the three biggest exam boards did not know. A sign of the priority given to the qualification?

Its future is under review by Ofqual, the exams watchdog, so we will possibly see some of these subjects disappear. It would be a pity if they were all scrapped. The engineering diploma is widely respected in university circles – including Cambridge. For now, perhaps we should reflect that it had a difficult birth.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, in his seminal exams inquiry a decade ago, wanted an overarching diploma embracing academic and vocational qualifications. What we got was a vocational diploma embracing just a tinge of academic studies, as Tony Blair would not wear what he saw as any watering down of A-levels.

It gives me no pleasure to say that we said at the time that the approach was doomed to fail.

To recap, for those of you who have been on the beach for the past month or so: Rupert Murdoch is still interested in backing one of Education Secretary Michael Gove's flagship academies in east London.

This was one reason why Gove had more meetings with News International than any other Cabinet minister. The revelation led to speculation about what might be the specialism of a Murdoch academy.

Information technology is the best bet. No, not phone hacking – News Corp's education wing has invested heavily in promoting digital technology. In drama lessons, there has been speculation that one of the modules could be on how to act the part of a Prime Minister in a telephone call. One thing definitely not on the curriculum is how to make foam pies.