Ed Balls’ bungling of the Diploma

October 29, 2009 at 7:44 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Diploma BLTL

Personally, I think Barry Sheerman missed a trick when he accused Ed Balls of being ‘a bit of a bully ‘. If I were him, I would’ve asked whether he was also a bit incompetent.

The past few days have a number of bad headlines for the 14-19 Diplomas, the heavily-promoted new qualification which looked fine on Mike Tomlinson’s drawing board but has been blighted in no small part by this government’s own hubris.

In a story as striking for its gumption as its mendacity, the DCSF’s own advertisement for Diplomas has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for falsely claiming that the Advanced Diploma, which is meant to be the equivalent of 3.5 A Levels, ‘can get you into any university’. In fact, whilst there are plenty of universities which will accept your Advanced Diploma, there’s still very little enthusiasm for them in the elite Russell Group.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I happen to think that lying to young people – and about a decision as important & consequential as what subject they choose to study – is a pretty grubby act, irrespective of whether it was done by design or out of error. And we wonder why youngsters don’t like authority figures.

The second story is less shocking, but further underscores how badly the government has mismanaged the rollout of this qualification. According to the Association of Colleges, many learners are finding their Diplomas very hard, meaning that some colleges are reluctant to accept lower ability students, effectively cutting them off from what was meant to become the ‘qualification of choice’ . Parts of the qualification may need an urgent re-write.

This is bad news for two reasons. First, those students with below average scores are exactly the kind of people the Diploma was meant to help. By mixing academic work with vocational & skills-based learning, young people who had previously struggled with A-Levels might’ve found a better route to achievement & employment.

Secondly, it reinforces what has been the Diploma’s most crippling problem; its lack of credibility. New qualifications are always treated with suspicion & resistance, and that probably doubled when Balls got over-excited and dreamed publicly that they’d replace GCSE & A-Levels. He would’ve been better off keeping his mouth shut.

Not only that, but his department grossly over-estimated the number of students who would start taking the Diploma, fell 20,000 short of its target, saw it criticised for lacking academic rigour, rejected by the CBI, and then encouraged FE colleges to set them up whilst they were suffering a funding crisis. It’s been accused of being too expensive , damned for struggling to teach students the three R’s, has been incredibly awkward to timetable and accused of creating ‘SatNav students’ .

For those who see the Diploma as a potentially brilliant way of encouraging aspiration & social mobility, the way Labour has handled its introduction is dismaying. In a field so heavily scrutinised, and filled with such a diverse array of stakeholders, it was never going to be easy to bring the Diploma into mainstream education. But the gap between government rhetoric and newspaper headlines has become so cavernous that the very future of this qualification is being put at risk. A qualification will live or die on its reception from three groups: employers, universities and students. Right now, the Diploma is so tangled up in bleak headlines that none of these groups seem easy to impress.

There are, of course, exceptions to this bleak outlook, and local authorities would do well to study what they’re doing right in places like Bolton, which seems to have adapted to it incredibly well. But despite the valiant exceptions, the Diploma is still in trouble, and its future in the coming Tory government seems uncertain .

What’s become clear is that if the Diplomas turn into a failure, the blame will not fall on the people co-ordinating them, or those who’re teaching or studying them. No, the blame will fall squarely on the Department for Children, Schools and Families and its bungling Secretary of State. If that happens, being branded a bully will really be the least of Ed Balls’ problems.

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