Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley
The Guardian 15/04/08
The government’s new strategy for 14-19 follows the peak in numbers of 18-year-olds entering higher education (42.5% in 2005-06), along with those achieving two A-levels (34% in 2006).
Although more than 80% remain in full-time education for a year after the compulsory school-leaving age, increased participation has been accompanied by increased division. The upper years of secondary education replicate past divisions as tripartism is reinstated at tertiary level. It is in this context that the government has launched its specialist diplomas in five vocational areas from September and in 17 “lines” to which all 14- to 16-year-olds will be entitled by 2013.
The academic-vocational divisions in many secondary schools will be intensified by further divisions between schools and also between schools and the FE colleges that are likely to be the main diploma providers in local consortia. About 100,000 14- to 16-year-olds currently attend FE colleges for part of the week but if, as the government wants, up to 40% of the cohort follow them on the diploma, colleges could become the new tertiary moderns.
For, despite government claims that nearly 80% of schools have signed up for a local diploma consortium and that 140,000 places will be available from September 2009, closer inspection suggests the actual numbers will be well short. The strategy document therefore announces diplomas in more academic subjects and a new “extended” diploma supposedly worth four A-levels. It hints also that all current standalone vocational qualifications like BTecs will be absorbed into diplomas.
Diplomas replace applied A-levels, which thus join a long line of failed vocational qualifications supposedly promoting new workplace skills and designed to motivate the “non-academic”.
Having conceded that the diplomas are not really directly vocational but more “applied”the government seeks to revamp the faltering modern apprenticeship as a work-based alternative. But many private-sector employers do not need them, and modern apprentices only receive an “allowance” and no guarantee of a job.
Meanwhile, students continue to flock to A-levels as the only reliable route to HE. But for private schools and the elite universities they supply, A-levels are no longer the gold standard. They prefer the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification. The Pre-U is unashamedly elitist, designed to re-establish the exclusivity of top schools while leaving A-levels – to which there are 800,000-plus entries each year – to the masses. And the 14-19 strategy announces that it will no longer support the international baccalaureate as an alternative to the Pre-U in all local authorities.
If private provision crams pupils for the Pre-U and other elite university entry exams, A-levels should secure entry to the next tier down of campus-based teaching universities, while diplomas may serve for the million-plus group of former polytechnics. Raised fees in 2010 will heighten these divisions by subject and institution.
Rather than trying to resurrect Tomlinson’s “overarching” certificate, which Labour rejected in 2006, by “Tomlinsonising” the diplomas, a new multi-level general diploma accessible to all students is needed. Such a qualification must safeguard the right to a common core curriculum, while at the same time enabling genuine specialisation. It should also be binding on all institutions, including the private ones; otherwise diversity and division can only widen. To ensure this would require renegotiation of the current relationship between central government and schools, limiting school autonomy.