Wednesday, 19 March 2008

How to win over parents on Diplomas

The DCSF has today announced that consortia in most parts of the country have signed up to offer the new Diplomas. That's the good news. But parents remain pretty clueless about them, and the Department has only itself to blame. Even Ed Balls found himself in a muddle trying to explain the concept to John Humphrys on Today recently.

There are three main reasons for the confusion. The first is that Diplomas are unnecessarily complex: Mike Tomlinson introduced the notion of 'lines of learning' - in engineering, leisure or science, for example, with lots of options within each 'line' - which make sense when you are close to deciding exactly what you want to study, but causes bemusement to everyone else. Ministers and other Diploma salespeople must simply talk about subjects and leave the detail and talk of 'lines' for teachers with their students.

The second is that the government is so obsessed with the Diplomas not being vocational that it has no clear explanation of what they are. Now I know that the ICT industry was very keen that its diplomas were much broader than functional IT diplomas, one reason why this stricture was applied. But it is treated as heresy to call Diplomas 'vocational' or even 'specialised' even though they were introduced in the first place as a vocational alternative to A-levels (a prohibition I'm pleased to say that Tony Blair dutifully ignored). Moreover, colleges believe the rigid limit of 40% practical content may make some Diplomas less attractive to those who want them to be a stepping stone into practical jobs, particularly at GCSE level 2 standard. This mentality is also preventing a sensible sales campaign, where different Diplomas are marketed differently.

And third, there is the whole business of A-levels. Gordon Brown went as far as possible at PMQs to talk-up A-levels today - far further than Balls has done - but the sooner the government simply says that Diplomas are unlikely to replace A-levels, the better for students and the better for Diplomas. Until ministers concentrate on what Diplomas are, rather than what they are not or what they might be, they will have a tough sell to parents, students and teachers.

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