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

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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