Magazine article Public Finance

All Shall Have Prizes

Magazine article Public Finance

All Shall Have Prizes

Article excerpt

Alan Johnson is busy treading a path followed by all new ministers - making a name for himself by announcing new policies. So far we have had Saturday schooling, new rules on coursework, more support for children in care and the possibility that the school leaving age, last raised in 1973, might be raised to 18.

But there's one massive change that the education secretary is not making a song and a dance about. At the Labour conference last week he slipped out an announcement about the further development of 14-19 diplomas, a policy that educationalists have described as 'the biggest change agenda that we have ever seen in education'.

Occasional education watchers might experience a feeling of déjà vu at this point. In 2004, there was a great furore about diplomas. A report by Mike Tomlinson, who had earned his spurs as the chief inspector of schools, called for radical reform of the post-14 education landscape. A single overarching diploma would replace many existing exams, and all young people would be expected to work towards one of its three levels.

Tomlinson's report was savaged by the tabloid newspapers, which raised fears about the death of the gold standard A-level exam, and about the continued dilution in standards implied by more vocational qualifications. The then education secretary Ruth Kelly promptly dumped the whole project.

Or did she? Because two years later many of its essential features are going full speed ahead. A white paper in 2005 set out a new entitlement' for 14-19 year olds, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been working with employers and the Department for Education and Skills to develop courses that will launch in 2008. Diplomas will cover 14 employment sectors, or 'lines of learning' in the DfES jargon.

These qualifications are not being aimed at the disaffected or the less able; they are intended for everyone. They will not replace existing qualifications such as the GCSE and A-level, but many students currently following traditional courses are expected to move over to the new qualifications. By 2013, when the last diplomas come on stream, it is estimated that 30%-40% of the age range will be working on one or more diplomas. In addition there will be a new General Diploma from 2011 for any young person who hits the magic five A*-Cs benchmark.

Many teenagers are already working to a similar system - 25 pathfinder local authorities were funded to examine 14-19 provision in 2003. That project finished last August.

Peter Hawthorne, 14-19 strategy manager at one of the pathfinders, Wolverhampton City Council, says: 'We were trying to create an area-wide curriculum. That involves colleges, schools, and specialist training providers - we have 20% of our Key Stage Four (14-16) kids in accredited work-based learning now.'

In Wolverhampton, the teenagers are working towards existing vocational and academic qualifications. The aim of the project was to assess the viability of making a real vocational offer to 14-year-olds. Engineering, electronics, construction - these are vocational areas that require specialist facilities and training, something that most schools would struggle to provide, especially for the relatively small numbers of pupils involved.

The answer was to abandon the commitment to a single institution. Youngsters remain on the school roll, but travel one or two sessions a week to a college or training venue. 'When you work in whole days or half days that makes it easier,' explains Hawthorne.

Another pathfinder found a similar solution. In Knowsley, 11 schools worked with the local further education college and local employers, including Jaguar at Halewood. 'Knowsley College now sees itself as a 14+ provider,' says John Cope, the local Learning and Skills Council 14-19 strategy manager. 'Approximately 800 young people access provision in years 10 and 11 through a vocational skill centre. We also have a dedicated centre for 14-16 year olds in Kirkby, and there are a further 350 who access provision through training providers. …

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