Not many teenage girls wax lyrical about steam engines and depth gauges, let alone spend their lunchtimes building a model racing car. But the students at Newstead Wood, a selective school for girls in Bromley, south London, are pioneers. Alongside their GCSEs, 20 of them are taking the new engineering diploma – and loving every minute of it. "You do a wide range of things, you go to college and work with machinery. It's so challenging, working things out for yourself," says Jessica Salisbury, 16. Bethany Hall, 15, agrees. "You work in such different ways," she says. "For one assessment we had to look at how a torch works and take it apart, and then design a torch for a teacher going camping."
Their teachers are equally enthusiastic about the course, which includes electronics, mechanical engineering, manufacturing and engineering design. Jenny Wright, the school's head of engineering, says: "Students learn through practical approaches, the content is varied, they get to work in teams and solve problems. It's also very challenging, which is important for them." Andy Colegate, the engineering technical manager who teaches one unit of the course, adds: "It turns out practical and competent students. It's not a wishy-washy qualification or an easy option. As an engineer myself, I think it is a really positive thing for the profession."
The engineering diploma is one of range of new qualifications to bridge the academic and vocational divide that are being introduced to schools and colleges – but not without difficulty. The multi-level qualifications are taught by "consortia" of schools, colleges and industry, and critics say they are complex and difficult to organise. Schools have been reluctant to take on the timetable challenges, government targets were unrealistic, employers were wary and teaching standards were variable.
But 18 months after it was launched, the engineering diploma is starting to show its mettle. Pupils are enthusiastic, employers are involved in designing and teaching it, and some top universities are backing it. Geoff Parks, the director of admissions at Cambridge University, is an engineer who has been involved its development, and Cambridge will be accepting the advanced diploma for entry to its engineering courses, provided applicants have A-level physics and additional maths as well. The first students come through this autumn.
"If any engineering tutor goes through the specifications they will appreciate that students are learning good stuff," he says. "I don't know anyone who has looked at it in detail who has a bad word to say about it. Universities are seeing a decline in practical skills among A-level students, partly because of what they do in schools, but also because so many spend their free time playing games in a virtual world rather than mending their bike or whatever it was they did in the past. This diploma gives students those skills."
Some universities are still hanging back, but many more have come on board since the maths content of the advanced diploma was bolstered last year with an extra "maths for engineering" certificate. "This is very similar to A-level maths," says Fred Maillardet, chairman of the maths task group of the Engineering Professors' Council, which developed the additional qualification. "In fact, to be frank, we used the opportunity to improve the A-level, which people had come to feel was too much about ticking the boxes and not enough about real understanding."
Real-life applications are used for each topic, including looking at how escalators, cranes and diggers work, and these case studies are now being downloaded by other maths teachers. He says: "People always talk about this diploma bridging the academic and vocational divide, but for engineers that idea is a nonsense. There is no such divide."
Introduced in autumn 2008, the diploma has three levels, and takes students out of schools and into colleges, universities and workplaces. There have been few takers for the foundation stage, aimed at less able GCSE candidates, but about 6,000 pupils are taking the higher diploma, equivalent to seven good GCSEs. And, although only about 700 students are taking the advanced diploma, equivalent to three-and-a-half A-levels, numbers are expected to rise when today's higher level students choose their post-16 options. Students are also imaginatively mixing diplomas with GCSEs and A-levels to a greater degree than was expected.
Its fan base is growing. "Employers are getting involved in all sorts of ways," says Claire Donovan, who is responsible for the diploma at the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies. "They are teaching projects and helping with assessments, and this is all applied learning, so there is something in it for them as well. They get opportunities to train their own staff and get problems solved by young people who haven't been told it can't be done! It has completely exploded the gap between industry and education. It is strong, relevant, it has been tested with the broadest possible range of employers and I haven't met one who hasn't enjoyed working on it."
Severn Trent Water offers students work-related learning, site visits, work experience and mentoring. "Our recent induction days for students received excellent feedback," says its chief executive Tony Wray. "Our company is 100 per cent behind the diplomas."
According to Graham Lane, chairman of the Engineering Diploma Development Partnership, where employers are helping to deliver it and partnerships are being built up, it is going well. "Increasingly, the teaching is completely different from the classroom, and word about it is growing," he says.
Exciting developments include students setting up their own companies, and opportunities for advanced diploma students to do five or six weeks' work experience in Europe.
Difficulties remain, however. In some places the diploma is being taught only in the classroom. In others, engineering work placements are hard to come by. More links are needed between schools and employers, and some universities remain suspicious.
Many students who are enthusiastically taking the diploma during their GCSE years do not want to do it at advanced level, because they do not want to close off their options. "They have to be confident that universities will accept it, and some universities haven't heard of it," says Wright.
Then there's the big one. What happens if there's a change of government? Everyone is holding their breath. But it's clear that if a new government throws this fledgling out of the window, or turns it into a narrow vocational qualification, as some fear, a true innovation will have been lost.