Key skills and experience at heart of new diplomas

Everyone studying the new vocational diplomas would take English, maths and IT modules as well doing work experience in their chosen subjects, it has been revealed.

The government has today published the first details of how the diplomas available as an alternative to GCSEs and A-levels from 2008 would be introduced in practice.

Five courses will be available from the start, increasing to 14 by 2013, although ministers do not expect colleges and schools to offer all of them, and suggest they will have to cooperate across local areas to provide students with a full choice.

“This is an exciting time for education. The first diplomas are really taking shape and they provide a vision of the future of learning for 14-19 year olds,” said schools minister Jim Knight.

Plans for a diploma system were first published in the 2005 white paper, following Mike Tomlinson’s report into 14-19 education in England. He suggested GCSEs and A-levels be scrapped and replaced by diplomas covering academic and vocational subjects.

However, despite support from many teaching unions, the government rejected this option. Ministers decided to keep the existing system of academic study, but introduce a new diploma system to replace the 3,500 vocational qualifications currently on offer.

Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Sarah Teather welcomed today’s proposals as a “step in the right direction”, but warned they would still do little to bridge the divide between academic and vocational education.

“If we are to succeed in opening up higher and further education to everyone, we must cast aside the antiquated idea that study is for the gifted and skills are only for the less bright,” she said.

Proposed diploma subjects include robotics, aerospace engineering, electrical installation, graphic design, nutrition and health, and computer programming, and today’s plans show students taking this route will have to undertake work experience and projects in their specific sector.

But they will also be required to study the basics, such as maths and English, and diplomas may contain elements of current GCSEs and A-levels where an employer or higher education institution demands.

Mr Knight noted that the courses had been developed in close cooperation with business, saying that for the first time employers have been “seriously involved” in deciding what skills were needed for the workforce.

“In the past, work-related learning has been developed in isolation of business – we have broken that mould and we are clear that partnership is the key to success,” he said.

Diplomas will be taken at three levels – the first is equivalent to four or five GCSE passes, the second to five or six GCSE passes above grade C and the third equivalent to three A-levels, which would be accepted by universities and colleges.