Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Strike a balance

A hammer and nail

ASCL member Jo Rowley has been keeping a close eye on the development of the specialised diploma for 14-19 year-olds. She discusses the potential benefits and bear traps facing schools and colleges.

The specialised diplomas for 14-19 year-olds, which are due to come on line in the next few years, are not merely 'another course option' to tack on the side of the curriculum offer. They have the potential to initiate a radical re-think of what education can offer learners as preparation for future employment.

However, while the vision of the specialised diploma cannot be faulted, as providers, we will need to seriously question how these new courses pragmatically can be integrated into the current educational system.

The diploma was born out of the government's 14-19 Education and Skills white paper of February 2005. While the white paper failed to accept the more radical proposals made in the earlier Tomlinson report, it did acknowledge the need for reforms to the 14-19 curriculum which would place a greater focus on the basics, offer learners a better curriculum choice, provide more challenging options and activities, and provide new ways to tackle disengagement.

The white paper therefore set out a new 'entitlement' for 14 to 16 year-olds and 16 to 19 year-olds, which includes the new, employer-led, specialised diploma currently being developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the DfES and the Skills for Business Network.

Throughout the development phase, QCA has hosted a number of consultation events, attended by all those working on the diploma development plus organisations such as the awarding bodies, local authorities, the LSC, schools and colleges - although the number of schools and colleges involved has been remarkably small.

Something for everyone

This new qualification should not be seen as one for the disaffected or less able. On the contrary, it is intended for everyone. It will be offered at levels 1, 2 and 3 and will be available for each of the 14 employment sectors, or 'lines of learning' to use the DfES jargon (see box overleaf).

According to the government, the purpose of the specialised diploma is to:

  • develop the knowledge and skills needed to progress into employment, training or further or higher education

  • meet the skills needs of employers

  • achieve the target (set out in the white paper) of 90 per cent of 17 year-olds in full-time education or training

  • increase the percentage of young people who achieve level 2 and 3 qualifications

  • improve the quality and recognition of qualifications in applied subjects

The last point will, perhaps, be the biggest measure of the diploma's success as it is this target which has never really been achieved in any previous attempts to introduce applied courses on a large scale.

For this to happen, everyone involved must recognise that these are courses which can be studied from level 1 to level 3 and that any student may be a suitable candidate.

It is therefore interesting to note that when sector skills and awarding bodies meet to discuss the diploma, the debate regularly focuses on the detail of the level 3 courses with little, if any, time being given to the level 1 courses.

Conversely, when colleagues in schools and colleges hear about the diploma for the first time, they naturally hone in almost exclusively on how it could be a useful vehicle for the delivery of existing alternative curriculum courses for the disaffected.

All of these discussions are important but they must be joined up. It is essential to continue providing the opportunities, created by QCA, for a wide cross-section of stakeholders to get together to move the agenda forward.

Adding it up

Levels 1 and 2 of the diplomas will be comparable, in terms of average length of study, to between four and six GCSEs; a level 3 diploma will be comparable to three GCE A levels. Work is also being carried out to develop a level 3 qualification broadly comparable in size to two GCE A levels.

All diplomas will be structured in such a way that they include three key components: principal learning, generic learning, and additional or specialist learning.

Principal learning will contain sector-related learning. Students will be expected to experience at least 50 per cent of this learning in real or realistic contexts.

Generic learning will develop and apply broad skills and knowledge necessary for learning, employment and personal development. These skills will not be specific to one diploma and learning will include subjects such as functional maths, English and ICT.

The component of additional/specialist learning is likely to be a big area for student choice and to provide opportunities for independent study. Learners should be able to specialise in areas relevant to their future career and some choices may come from existing courses.

For example, a level 3 engineering student may decide to take AS maths as part of his or her additional learning.

The proportion of time spent on each of these key areas will depend on the level of study. Level 1 diplomas will put a greater emphasis on generic learning and level 3 diplomas will offer more time for additional/specialist learning.

In addition, all students will receive at least ten days' work experience to support their learning.

Countdown to 2013

The key questions for school and college leaders are around implementation of the new diploma courses. The first diploma curriculum will be available for teaching in September 2008 and the last should come on line in September 2010.

It is in 2013 that the national entitlement kicks in for every 14 to 19 year-old to have the opportunity to study any one of the specialised diplomas.

The enormity of the 2013 deadline should not be underestimated. With 14 employment areas and three levels of study, students should have access to 42 different diploma courses.

Clearly this is not realistic for any one educational institution. In reality, it could be a challenge for some schools and colleges to deliver just one or two diplomas well at all three levels.

At this stage in the debate, the word 'collaboration' is typically introduced with enthusiasm by those who don't work in or with schools and colleges - as though it is the obvious solution that none of us have thought of.

Whilst there is no need to dwell on the details, school and college leaders already know that collaboration works best when institutions are geographically close and the project is heavily subsidised, not only to cover transport costs but also to employ a manager whose main responsibly is to strive to achieve continuity and consistency amongst the partners, as well as coordinate the pastoral care of the students.

The reality and limitations of collaboration have been raised by ASCL members at every opportunity with government representatives yet, to my knowledge, education leaders have not heard a supportive or optimistic reply.

Without substantial and realistic support structures so that schools and colleges can develop meaningful collaborative learning environments, the fear is that few learners will have access to their entitlement, however creatively we think.

Perhaps, with time, one solution will come from consumer choice - we may find that there are some diplomas that are not readily taken up by students.

When planning out staffing and curriculum in a cost-effective way, the reality is that schools and colleges will not be able to make provision on a yearly basis for courses which never run. Nationally a picture may develop or, at a local level, the community's needs may drive a 'micro-curriculum'.

While this will not provide the entitlement ideal as laid out in the white paper, ongoing evaluation of options will show which courses learners would like to pursue and which are non-starters.

What is clear is that there is a lot of uncertainty as to how the delivery of these courses will work. Therefore, where collaboration is possible, it would be prudent for school and college leaders to trial diplomas on a small scale rather than waiting for 2013 when everything will be expected to be in place and running smoothly. Indeed many partnerships are already heading in that direction.

Hairdressing anyone?

Assuming that we get over the collaboration hurdle (or should that be pole vault?), who will deliver these courses? Like many colleagues in schools, I was trained to deliver the national curriculum and my knowledge of hairdressing is probably no better than my tractor driving skills, yet much of the delivery will take place in schools and colleges by qualified teachers.

Those who are a bit longer in the tooth may relish the opportunity once more to teach practical courses that have been sidelined by the national curriculum.

However, schools today are likely to be filled with teachers who themselves studied the national curriculum. Training teachers today is too late for 2013 as those institutions lucky enough to have stable staffing probably lose one or two teachers a year.

Perhaps functional maths courses should ask students to calculate how long it will take for the knowledge of their teachers to change to meet the requirements for delivering the new diploma courses.

Financial reality

Assuming the collaboration and staffing come together, the next issue will be the timetabling; not just at a collaborative level but within an individual institution.

Budgets are difficult beasts to work with. Every year, a hundred and one perennial issues could be resolved if only we had more money. From a budgetary standpoint, schools and colleges are most effective when 30 students are taught together in one room with one instructor. The more times that this is achieved in the timetable, the more likely it is that the books will balance.

The implementation of the diplomas could see staffing costs soar as students tailor their diploma course to suit their future plans and, as a consequence, create groups with just a handful of students in them.

Choice is a welcome thing; it encourages students to take responsibility for their learning and allows them to see relevance in what they are doing. However, choice has to be tempered with the reality of financial constraints if theses courses are to run with similar funding to existing courses.

There are no specifications available for the diplomas at the moment as teams of people are currently working on the content of the courses. We hope that the final specifications are not so fanciful that they raise the hopes of learners above what we can deliver.

In conclusion, the specialised diplomas should be seen as an opportunity to revolutionise secondary education. They combine the most relevant areas of the existing curriculum with the skills required for employment and further education.

The changes in the infrastructure of our educational system will be immense and will need to take place quickly. If we are willing to take on the challenge, we can only hope that the government will provide the support needed to make it a success.

Jo Rowley is acting deputy head at Walton High School in Staffordshire, an 11-18 school which is working in partnership with other secondary schools and colleges.

Specialised diplomas

The 14 specialised diploma courses, which the DfES calls 'lines of learning', will be introduced in three phases.

September 2008

  • Information and communication technology

  • Health and social care

  • Engineering

  • Creative media

  • Construction and the built environment

September 2009

  • Land-based environmental

  • Manufacturing

  • Hair and beauty

  • Business and administration finance

  • Hospitality and catering

September 2010

  • Public services

  • Sport and leisure

  • Retail

  • Travel and tourism

Further information on the specialised diplomas can be found at www.dfes.gov.uk/14-19 and www.qca.org.uk/11-19reform

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