Is the introduction of Diplomas a good idea? Yes, I think so. There is a need to provide a real alternative to the existing GCSE and A Level structure and the Diplomas with their progressive from Foundation to Higher and Advanced/Progression provides a viable alternative to the increasingly discredited existing system. The 'gold standard' looks increasingly beleaguered and somewhat tarnished. This does beg the question of why major reforms for A Level are to be introduced in 2008 if the Diploma is to replace it and that appears to be the clear intention of the government. I have never understood the argument for further reform of A Level anyway. It seems to me that, after a very rocky introduction, the AS-A Level system worked rather well at least it appeared to do so in my subject. Students liked the variety, the option of doing coursework and research assignments and the ability to cover a range of subjects and periods though that appears not to be what most teachers did. The 'Hitlerisation' of the curriculum was well attested in the press. Not, I suspect, that the new courses is going to change that.
But, I do have a problem with how the Diplomas will be judged against existing courses at Advanced Level and this gives further evidence of the government's intentions. How can you have a Diploma that is allocated the same time as three A Levels and then give it a higher tariff of 420 UCAS points split with up to 300 for the "principal and generic learning" components, and 120 more for additional and specialist learning compared to 360 for the A levels. If a Diploma is 'broadly the same as three A Levels', then it should have the same tariff. To do otherwise is seriously loading the dice in favour of Diplomas. In addition, £28m Diploma funding for the first year would mean schools and colleges getting an extra £1,000 or so for each Diploma student they taught. I can't remember an equivalent sum being offered when the new A Levels were introduced.
In late October, Ed Balls stated that 'If Diplomas are successfully introduced and are delivering the mix that employers and universities value, they could be come the qualification of choice for young people. But, because GCSEs and A-levels are long established and valued qualifications, that should not be decided by any pre-emptive government decision but by the demands of young people, schools and colleges.' I would have though that accepting QCA's recommendation about the tariff is the equivalent to a 'pre-emptive government decision'! While there may be a strong case for replacing GCSEs with the Higher Diploma (and given that it is the equivalent of seven grades A*-C many schools mindful of league tables will take it up), the case for all students taking courses that are a mix of theoretical and practical and applied study is less clear. Getting universities to accept them is crucial to their success. However, a survey this summer suggested that fewer than four in ten university admissions officers saw the Diploma as a 'good alternative' to A-levels and the Russell Group of leading universities has expressed reservations. So even if the government loads the dice in favour of Diplomas that does not mean that they will inevitably become acceptable to universities, well at least the leading universities.
If the government thinks Diplomas are such a good thing, then it should be honest about it and abolish A Levels and GCSEs instead of trying to get them accepted by the back door. But then honesty is not a characteristic of this government!