Desperate Diplomacy – Ed Balls announces more diplomas


Martin Allen 


Post-16 Educator  Nov-Dec 2007 


 Ed Balls’ announcement of 3 new ‘subject based’ diplomas does not represent a fundamental change of heart by the Government. Neither, as Head teachers leader John Dunford correctly observes (TES, 26/10/07), does it constitute a return to the spirit of Tomlinson.  


As Balls’ announcement makes clear, New Labour are not planning to replace A-levels. In an age where what you learn is less important than what it will allow you to earn, who among the thousands of existing A-level students would risk untried diplomas in subject areas already well provided for and where there are established market leaders? 


It is already possible for aspiring science students for example, to take alternative courses in science by following an ‘applied’ A-level (VCE). In 2005/6 the VCE double science option attracted a staggering 800 entries compared with over   23000 for physics A-level, 34000 for chemistry and more than 46000 for biology.


Even in business studies, where vocational/applied courses have become more established, entries for VCE both single and double, were less than a third of those for the ’equivalent’  GCE A-level.  At level 2 – where we assume the new courses will also be available – it would be inappropriate to encourage this level of specialisation. Here again it is already possible to sit double, even triple GCSEs in science and there are several different humanities combinations.  Because of government changes at Key Stage 4, many Year 10 students opt-out of modern languages completely – so   proposals for a languages diploma seem particularly bizarre.


It is true that at this stage, we know nothing about the course content for the new courses, but rather than being a change of direction, or an attempt to reconstruct Tomlinson, Balls’ announcement smacks of desperation- an attempt to shore up an ailing programme that has attracted few friends and with only one in 120 students signing up for the first round of diplomas starting in 2008(TES, 26/10/07) is already becoming an educational white-elephant. The only serious challenge to A-levels continues to emerge ‘at the other end’ so to speak: with elite schools ditching the ‘gold standard’ and turning to the International Bac and the new Cambridge Pre-U. Any review of 14-19 qualifications, must take place now, by 2013 it could all be far too late.                                     


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