The unravelling of a cure-all qualification

Can diplomas, originally pitched at plugging the middle-range skills gap, really ensure high-quality

Few people are neutral about the government's new 16-19 "skills-based" diplomas, which schools begin teaching in September, replacing a raft of existing vocational courses. Teachers, academics and employers either love or hate diplomas.

"We are wildly enthusiastic about the diploma," said Nigel Akers, vice-principal of Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham which has been trialling the new qualification and begins formal teaching in September. "It is a different style of learning, more rooted in real-life experiences."

The Diploma: A Disaster Waiting to Happen was the title of a report published by Professor Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Buckingham University in June. He says it is "extremely doubtful that the same qualification can be fit for a wide range of purposes, such as university entrance and recruitment to craft and technician levels in employment".

Diplomas, designed in partnership with employers, were originally intended to plug the country's biggest skills gap - those middle-range skills, which should have been met through apprenticeships and vocational training, but which employers have been reluctant to provide. They aim to develop broad workplace skills rather than preparation for a specific job.

But Gordon Brown wants the diploma to both engage those who are not in education, employment or training (Neets) as he raises the school-leaving age to 18 and produce world-class scientists and other top-notch graduates who can keep India and China at bay for at least another generation. Advanced diplomas will be worth more university entrance points than three A levels. Extended diplomas will be worth 4.5 A levels. Can the diploma really be all things to all people, asks Smithers.

Five of the 14 vocational diplomas - IT, engineering, creative and media, health and social care, and construction and the built environment - will be taught from this year.

The diploma wrapper includes various components: centrally examined functional skills in English, maths and IT (roughly GCSE equivalent), a project that will be assessed locally, 10 days' (unassessed) work experience, and the rather vague "personal learning and thinking skills", acquired through the other components.

"The IT diploma is preparation for the world of work, not specifically for a degree in IT," said Akers, who is also coordinator of the IT Diploma Partnership. He says seven of the 14 diplomas could be the vehicle for general business skills.

So how is it different to what went before? Hands-on practical experience is crucial. But being "relevant" also means a different kind of teaching, with reference to real-life examples.

"We entered students with A* maths GCSE in the functional skills exam. It is supposedly the same level, but they all failed. They can do the maths but explaining how that is used in a business environment is what threw them. It is challenging, especially when young people do not have these life experiences," Akers said.

It could also be that 10 weeks' work experience, all that is required over two years, is not enough to develop those skills.

"Most schools have neither the range of equipment nor expertise to teach practical skills to industrial standards, so the danger is that the diploma will become less about honing up practical skills than writing or talking about them," said Smithers.

Meanwhile, the different components make diplomas complex, and their range burdensome for schools. By the government's own admission they can only be delivered by a consortium of schools. Language colleges can offer language diplomas, science colleges might offer science, engineering and IT diplomas, but to have a real choice, students will need to travel between sites, which could involve long distances in non-urban areas.

In Nottingham a consortium of ten secondaries signed up to diplomas from this year, another five schools join from September 2009. The most popular diplomas are IT, engineering, and creative and media. It is no coincidence that these are the most accepted by universities, although some universities have queried the standard of mathematics in engineering. Even Smithers believes the engineering diploma could gain currency, although he points out there are whole swathes of the country, such as the south coast, with no engineering industry to gain work experience in.

By contrast the NHS, the largest employer in Europe, is everywhere and "highly supportive" of the health and social care diploma, no doubt because it used to provide on-the-job training to the kind of people who might now do the diploma.

But it is less clear who would be attracted to the construction and built environment diploma, say, which is not about bricklaying, but more about town planning and development.

"The diploma should not be looked at as something for disaffected youngsters, they may not stand a chance to complete the whole thing," said Mr Akers.

Every component of the diploma needs to be in place before the qualification is awarded. Only the highly motivated, and those best supported by their schools will last the course. Hardly something for the Neets, then.

However, it was when the extended diplomas in science, languages and humanities were announced last year that the diploma began to unravel as a cure-all qualification. Its selling point over A levels is "applied learning", carried over from the vocational diplomas.

"Many top scientists have come up through doing A levels but the diploma will add other skills, with a focus on applied learning," says Professor Hugh Lawlor, chair of the Science Diploma Development Partnership (DDP), which includes academics, industry and educationalists. The problem will be finding the time in the timetable for both academic rigour and highly practical learning.

The rationale for a science diploma is that industry needs laboratory technicians as well as nanoscientists and astrophysicists. But even Lawlor believes A levels might be a better route for some.

The languages diploma will encompass both European and "community" languages, and will include "intercultural" learning.

A humanities diploma is the most difficult to design, encompassing a broad range of subject disciplines. Still embryonic, the "big idea" seems to be a "synoptic element" across several disciplines. But even Sir Keith Ajegbo, chair of the Humanities DDP, agrees that to be distinct from A levels "we need to be clear what we are selling to employers".

Therein lies the rub. The Confederation of British Industry, many of whose members had helped devise vocational diplomas, came out against academic diplomas, preferring tried and tested A levels for university entry. That has frightened off many students.

Akers still insists diplomas are "what Britain PLC wants". But not everyone is convinced that what is good for business is good for Britain.

Yojana Sharma is an international education correspondent