The Tories and the Diplomas



Martin Allen

TES  letter 18/09/09


I’m no fan of the diplomas, but I do have some sympathy for those teachers and lecturers working hard to deliver them.

Rather than being genuine alternatives, the diplomas have ended up being the ‘worst of both worlds’ mimicking the academic qualifications they seek equality of status with and consequently alienating the very students the government has designed them for.  A similar fate met the GNVQ when it was re launched first as an ‘applied’ A-level. Student numbers nose dived as schools and particularly colleges, returned to the BTEC style courses that GNVQ was supposed to replace.

As your editorial (11/09/09)  implies, vocational qualifications will never be able to achieve parity while academic education continues to exist in the way that it does and be the only route of entry to established universities. The Tories may well abolish the diplomas but they won’t be anymore successful at improving the status of vocational learning. There again, they probably don’t want to!


Why we need a general diploma accessible to all









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.











































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.                                     


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 (  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.