Learning for Labour: specialist diplomas and 14-19 education.


Martin Allen


 FORUM      Vol 49  No 3   2007




Despite reports of ministers wanting to delay implementation, government have given the go-ahead for 5 new specialist diplomas to begin from September 2008 in a limited number of schools and colleges. The 2006 Education Act gave young people a ‘national entitlement’ to study one of 14 vocational areas outlined in the 2005 14-19 White Paper. According to the White Paper up to 40% of KS4 students will be taking one by 2013.  A level 2 diploma will equate to GCSE grade C, occupying about half total timetable space. Level 1 can be used in conjunction with the White Paper’s proposals for a new workplace based learning route for more ‘disaffected’ students, while post-16 students can follow a two year level 3 qualification which, like current vocational qualifications, would constitute the majority of their study time.  



Education and the economy. A new correspondence?

 The White Paper emphasises  the importance of responding to globalisation and increased international competition by improved educational provision, particularly vocational education. The Government wants the diplomas to ‘put employers in the driving seat’ consequently; Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) have been assigned a leading role in diploma design.



We cannot automatically assume that SSC involvement will raise the currency of the diploma with individual employers. Furthermore, the need to meet Government deadlines has resulted in QCA taking an increased role in overseeing diploma development. In fact QCA material now plays down the direct vocational relevance of the diplomas and instead emphasises their status as an alternative ‘applied’ qualification. As with existing vocational qualifications, for the majority of diploma students learning will continue to be classroom, not workplace based and remain teacher directed.  They will be required to complete 10 days work experience, but this is invariably what many Year 10 or 11 students do now.




  At a general level, there is also an issue about whether concentrating on one vocational area will help the ‘employability’ of young people. For example the same White Paper points to the transient nature of employment in the 21st century.   



Unfortunately, rather than embracing the world of the highly mobile ‘knowledge worker’, able to work in different economic sectors, the reality facing many young people could be very different. Government continue to predict a general   ‘upskilling’, but for others, the 21st century economy is likely to be increasingly polarised (Henwood, 2003) or ‘hourgalss’ (Cruddas, 2002) with as many new ‘Mcjobs’ as professional and managerial opportunities.



Functional skills

The introduction of ‘functional skills’ is the result of CBI criticism of school-leavers abilities in maths and English ‘basics’ (CBI, 2006); however employer condemnation of young people is not new.     As Rikowski (2006) wryly observes:


After James Callaghan’s Ruskin College Speech of 1976 and the resulting Great Debate on Education, the 1988 Education Reform Act, ushering in the National Curriculum, national testing, SATs, league tables, and then Ofsted, together with New Labour’s focus on standards early on after 1997 and then the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours – and school-leavers’ reading, writing and maths are still inadequate for employers! The CBI Report could have easily have been written in the 1970s or 1980s.


Each diploma will require students to pass functional skills, (an amalgam of current  ‘key skills’ and ‘skills for life’ qualifications) in English, maths and ICT, but functional skills will also be a compulsory part of GCSE syllabuses, students will not be able to obtain a maths and English GCSE without them. Many diploma students, particularly those at level 1, could be restricted to functional skills work, alarming English teachers seeking to safeguard the more creative aspects of their subject.  In addition, we should expect humanities, arts and modern foreign languages, (already no longer included in the Key Stage 4 mandatory core) to be absent from diploma students timetables.



 School and FE. Reconfirming a two tier system

It is in the way in which diplomas are to be delivered that the uncertainties are the most pronounced. As the White Paper recognises, it is unlikely that individual schools will be able to offer more than one, at most two, of the diplomas and few will have the resources to offer more specialist areas like Construction and the Built Environment. The Government plan to establish 200 vocational schools and The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust website lists the ‘trailblazing’ schools already identified (www.specialistschools.org.uk).  New Academies programmes, particularly in city areas where there is both commercial sponsorship and support from local labour councils could also be particularly significant as a Trojan horse for establishing the new diplomas.



The main vehicle for diploma delivery however, will be a network of local partnerships, involving LEAs and Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs). ‘In every area, providers will ensure that between them they are making a full offer’ (14-19 White Paper 7.25). The number of school students attending college for part of the week is predicted to increase significantly. As a result of the Increasing Flexibility scheme up to 120 000 14-16 year olds currently attend FE colleges for at least a day a week. However according to the DfES as 350 000 14-16 year olds could be enrolled, FE attendance may double (DfES, 2006).



Despite increased collaboration with schools, colleges continue to be the poor relation. Unable to compete with school sixth forms, which enjoy significant funding advantages, many colleges have abandoned A-level teaching altogether.  Salaries of FE teaching staff still remain up to 30% less than those of school teachers in equivalent positions. The fact that FE colleges will continue to provide a disproportionate number of level 1 and level 2 diploma courses will compound these differences and as a result of cutbacks in provision for adult learning, leave colleges in danger of becoming the new ‘tertiary moderns’.



Research findings about the experiences of 14-16 year olds in colleges have been positive, but there is concern whether colleges can provide adequate support for these increased numbers.  There is also concern about child protection issues and whether school students would always be taught by a trained teacher. New systems of monitoring attendance and travelling arrangements would also be required (NUT 2007). Many students however, may not want to ‘travel to learn’ for part of the week and opt for the vocational courses their schools currently offer.  This would suit cash strapped schools and avoid them having to hand over resources, (we assume that students migrating to FE will take funds with them) or lose teaching staff.  So rather than actively supporting the local partnerships, schools may be just as likely to look after their immediate interests. Research by LEACAN, a network of LEA inspectors and consultants (LEACAN, 2006) shows many schools and LEAs unprepared for the diplomas, not convinced about their potential success and unclear why they are needed at all.  The speed at which the diplomas are to be introduced – final syllabus details are still not available, the lack of input of teachers and lecturers and absence of professional development has worried both UCU and the NUT.




The real crisis of vocational qualifications

Employer representatives have been present on bodies like BTEC and City & Guilds that have delivered full time vocational education courses, but their input has been ad hoc. Rather than developing real employment skills,  vocational qualifications, despite being  promoted  as  new  style ‘competences’,   have continued to be used to manage changes in the composition of the secondary school population, a  response to behaviour problems and disaffection, in short, as a new form of social control. (Allen and Ainley, 2007).


In the 1970s for example, new courses, many with a workplace theme were introduced for those 15 year olds who, as a result of ROSLA, now remained in school for another year, while the 1980s, jobless school leavers were provided with compulsory Youth Training Schemes (YTS) – which Finn (1987) aptly described as ‘training without jobs’.  In the 1990s, a period which Allen and Ainley refer to as ‘education without jobs’, qualifications like the GNVQ were established to serve a new cohort of students who, after the failure of youth training and the continuing uncertainty in the job market,  were remaining in full-time education for much longer.


GNVQs should be seen as another attempt at constructing a ‘technical’ stream.  However they continued to suffer from ‘academic drift’ as students used them as educational qualifications to enter HE – invariably post 1992 ‘new’ universities rather than Russell.  As GNVQs became Vocational Certificates in Education (VCEs) and then applied A-levels, students have experienced the worst of both worlds with a qualification that could only imitate the status of its A-level counterpart and no longer provided a different sort of learning experience. As the number of students taking VCEs stagnated, other qualifications like BTEC Nationals – officially given the kiss of death by the introduction of GNVQ – have resurfaced as alternatives.


After the rejection of Tomlinson’s comparatively modest  proposals for linking academic and vocational learning through an overarching certificate, the vocational diplomas represent an attempt to consolidate Sir Ron Dearing’s ’pathways’ approach of the 1990s, representing a ‘middle’ track between academic and workplace learning.  Yet ironically, it may be the A-level that will occupy this position (Allen, 2006). As well as excusing themselves from participating in local learning partnerships, private schools and elite state schools may continue to gravitate towards the International Baccalaureate or the new Cambridge Pre-U award. If A-levels become a second division academic qualification, then the status of the level 3 diploma becomes even more uncertain.    






Rethinking Vocationalism

This year’s NUT conference called for a halt to the diploma programme and for a national review of vocational education. With another ROSLA looming, we should continue to support all attempts to improve the quality and status of vocational learning. Vocational learning post-16 must be accompanied by guarantees of  worthwhile employment, while at  post 14 it should only remain  a subject option,  rather than serving as an alternative track  for ‘non academic’ students.  However our conception of vocationalism has to be broadened. All students should have the right to learn particular occupational skills of their choice, but there must also, as part of any core curriculum, be an entitlement to a more general intellectual and critical understanding of the world of work.  A precedent to this argument can be found in the work of early 20th century educationalist John Dewey who in opposition to a narrow trade learning argued for:


An education which acknowledges the full intellectual and social meaning of a vocation would include instruction in the historic background of present conditions; training in dealing with material and agencies of production; and study of economics, civics, and politics, to bring the future worker into touch with the problems of the day and the various methods proposed for its improvement. Above all, it would train power of re adaptation to changing conditions so that future workers would not become blindly subject to a fate imposed upon them (Dewey, 1916, p318-319).


Suffice to say, ‘Deweyfication’ of the curriculum   would also require radical changes to other aspects of education, but it can still provide a starting point to mobilise around.




















































































































































































































































































































































































































































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