Diploma revolution: Will the controversial new qualifications succeed?

Teenagers' schooling is being radically revamped with a range of new diplomas. But are teachers and pupils well enough informed about the change? Hilary Wilce takes a look at how one city is introducing reform

Steven Harris is a 13-year-old guinea pig. He is having a day off school to visit a local arts centre, where he has made a cartoon with clay models and is about to learn how videos are filmed. If he enjoys the experience, he will be able to sign up for a new diploma, starting in September, which will mean that much of the next two years will be spent learning about the creative industries.

This would be a revolution. He could find himself out of the classroom making a film, working at a radio station, visiting a newspaper, and doing arts and drama projects.

But Harris isn't sure. He likes the idea of doing practical work alongside traditional classroom learning, but is worried about specialising too early. "If you want a job in the media, I suppose this would help you a lot. But what if you're not sure what you want to do? If you take it, then you'll have to head in that direction."

In fact, he and his fellow students are quite confused about the whole thing. "I think it's like, if you do a diploma, it's [worth] four GCSEs or something," says Jens Kelly, 13. His fellow students know that there is a range of specialist diplomas on offer to them, focusing on things like health or construction, but their school, Aldersley High School in Wolverhampton, has yet to spell out the details.

Even so, the school is way ahead of the rest of the country. A huge upheaval is about to hit secondary schooling, but so far almost no one understands it.

From next September, a range of radical new diplomas, mixing vocational and academic learning will be introduced. Most of the 17 diplomas will focus on vocational areas such as business, tourism or media, but three will cover the academic areas of science, languages and humanities.

These last three have been added late to the mix, in a clear signal from the Government that it wants to see A-levels abandoned, and pupils of all abilities filtered into this new matrix of qualifications. This is something Mike Tomlinson, former head of Ofsted, proposed three years ago in a review of 14 to 19 education, which is being introduced by the back door. Students will be able to take diplomas at three levels, with the most advanced carrying a higher score for university entry than three As at A-level.

Ken Boston, the government's chief qualifications and curriculum adviser, has described them as "the biggest development in examinations anywhere in the world". And within four years of their introduction, a quarter of all 14- to 19-year-olds are expected to be taking them.

Yet a recent survey of more than 800 secondary heads shows that there are those who know little about these new qualifications, many misunderstand them, and only a quarter believe that they will provide a good preparation for university. Teachers and parents know even less, and universities are doubtful – only half of the top universities say they are likely to take diploma candidates when they start coming through in 2010, according to research released last month. Even more worrying is employer indifference. According to the National Audit Office, two-thirds of the group's pioneering diplomas are finding it hard to get employers interested, posing a major threat to their success.

But in Wolverhampton, where they have already been working on diplomas for two years, enthusiasm is high. The education authority is one of three partnerships that have been piloting the new qualifications, and its team feels passionately that this is the way forward. "Think of anything in life that you know how to do," says Peter Hawthorne, head of 14-19 development in the city, "cooking, working, bringing up your children – you name it, and you'll have learnt to do it through doing."

Elizabeth Love, a work-based learning manager, is anxious to stress that diplomas will be completely different from anything that has gone before. "Forget the old idea of 10 days' work experience. These pupils' experience will be ongoing."

The aim is to offer students a more exciting and useful way of learning, by concentrating on one area. Pupils will continue to cover much of the current curriculum, but with lessons geared towards manufacturing, or the hair and beauty industry. They will be out and about in offices, workshops and salons, visiting magistrates' courts and rest homes, and doing maths, English and science projects that relate directly to what they are seeing and doing.

Such plansare hard to put in place, however. Schools and colleges need to come together in consortia, and employers and trainers need to offer opportunities. When Wolverhampton put on a taster day for pupils interested in the creative and media diploma, it required an arts centre to set up sessions with freelance video and animation tutors, and for the students to be bussed into the city centre from outlying schools.

Assembling the whole creative and media diploma means the authority must draw on all the town's art, dance, music, theatre, fashion, media and newspaper resources, then get them to agree on what sort of programme would add up to a good learning experience for students.

This then has to be replicated for all the diplomas launching this September, getting employers on board for the construction diploma, and primary care trusts for the health one.

"The learning curve has been just straight up," says Love. "And it will be even more so for those who haven't yet got their systems in place." Wolverhampton already has extensive 14-19 cooperation, with the deputy heads of all the schools meeting regularly to discuss the curriculum.

"We've had networks and partnerships for a long time," explains Simon Smith, vice-principal of The King's Church of England School. "People are coming to the table knowing that collaboration works." Now the battle, he says, is to put the right content in place, and to ensure standards are high.

"For the diplomas, we brought together anyone who expressed an interest, and over time the groups changed," says Love. "Some people said it's not for us. Others said, yes, we're interested." But a big problem has been to get the owners of small companies involved. "Employers are slowly getting it, but there's still work to be done."

Wolverhampton will be offering all of the first five diplomas from next September (see box), and plans to launch five more the following year. They will take up two days of the school week, and all the secondary schools in the city will be shifting to a three-day core curriculum. Diploma students, however, will also have to study additional subjects. "We want languages to figure big in their additional and specialist learning, and we want to make sure they have variety and breadth in their choices," says Love.

All other qualifications – GCSEs and A-levels, as well as existing vocational qualifications, like BTECs – will continue, and Love points out that diplomas are aimed at students in the middle of the ability range. "If what you want to do is build walls, a diploma's probably not for you." Out of a cohort of 2,700 students, about 450 are expected to sign up for a diploma in the first year, and at least 10 out of 18 secondary schools will be involved in delivering them.

Despite difficulties, Wolverhampton remains keen and optimistic. But diplomas raise worrying questions for the entire sector. How do you timetable them? How do you get the necessary collaboration? And what systems are needed to keep track of each learner?

Then there are the bigger educational issues. How will the quality of learning be monitored? And how will teaching standards be upheld when there is such a variety of trainers involved?

In the end, it will be these hoary old basics that make or break this extensive curriculum makeover. Diplomas, just like any other learning, will need great teaching and motivated learners to make them fly. Without them, a video workshop on cameras and microphones can be as flat and unproductive as a classroom lesson on the Tudors and Stuarts, or a lab session on the periodic table.

A guide to the new diplomas

Diplomas are a new way of learning for pupils aged 14 to 19, offering a mix of classroom learning, creative thinking and hands-on experience.

There will be 17 diplomas. The first five – in construction and the built environment; IT; creative and media; society; health and development; and engineering – start in 145 consortia of schools, and colleges this September. The next five – environmental and land-based studies; business administration and finance; manufacturing and product design; hospitality and catering; and hair and beauty – start in September next year in a further 197 school groups. Travel and tourism, public services, sport, and leisure and tourism will be available in 2010, humanities, languages and science in September 2011. By 2013 every student will be able to take a diploma.

Diplomas can be studied at three levels: foundation, equivalent to five GCSEs; higher, equivalent to seven GCSEs, and advanced, equivalent to three-and-a-half A-levels. They are intended to help students move into a job, further training or on to university.

Students can take GCSEs and A-levels alongside diplomas – diploma students have to take additional courses

Advocates say they will modernise learning, improve staying-on rates and close the gap between academic and vocational learning. But fans of A-levels see them as dumbing down, while the vocational lobby says they are too academic. Everyone is concerned about standards.