Vocademia: an exploration and a construction


This page considers how much educational currency the diploma currently has by looking at some areas of the initial 2004 report that helped create the new diplomas, and how this report with the diploma has been viewed since, particularly with regards to academic and vocational interests.

The Tomlinson Report

Mike Tomlinson offers an invaluable summary of his lengthy and detailed report in his opening letter to the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke. I will attempt to deconstruct the language it uses and see what it offers in terms of academic and vocational learning.

In his second paragraph he states that "our vocational provision is too fragmented". Is this because it is seen in education as secondary to the core, academic subjects? I think I have highlighted some of this in my HISTORY page, and how it has remained a problem throughout state education since its inception.

 peoples motivation and engagement with education [is] reducing as they move through the system." Tomlinson is making it clear that disaffection and dissatisfaction is clearly a problem from both sides of the academic and vocational divide.

"Our report sets out a clear vision for a unified framework of 14-19 curriculum and qualifications. We want scholarship in subjects to be given room to flourish and we want high quality vocational provision to be available from age 14. These are different, but both, in their own terms, are vital to the future wellbeing of young people and hence our country."

This is tricky as he sets out a desire for a unified framework, but then talks about the differences between scholarly work and vocational work. I think within this one paragraph lies a lot of the weaknesses and criticisms that his report and the new Diplomas have suffered from, which can be seen in the different viewpoints taken on the Diploma below.

The Government on the Diploma


Looking at the political changes in education around 2004, and what Mike Tomlinson says himself about the implementation by the government of the new Diploma, then it is clear that it has started in confusion from the off.

It started positively with:-
"For the first time we are going to take on and tackle the intellectual snobbery which has relegated vocational education to a second class, second best education," 
said Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, as she prepared to publish a White Paper responding to the Tomlinson report.
The words have echoes of what one of her predecessors, David Blunkett, said in July 2000 when he launched specifically vocational GCSEs and A-levels.
"Traditional routes have failed to motivate and engage many bright and gifted youngsters. We need to think imaginatively now about using their talent and creativity in meeting the craft skills needs of the future," he said.  "We also need to match the status and commitment to vocational education and lifelong learning that exists in other developed countries."

But Tomlinson, former chief inspector of England's schools, thinks the government is doing the precise opposite of what Ms Kelly has said. He said part of its remit to his working group had been to look at having unified qualifications. This is what their Diploma had been designed to do - drawing in all existing qualifications - and it had achieved a "considerable consensus", even among employers and universities, he said. But he says, the government has missed a chance to end the academic/vocational split.  Sir Mike Tomlinson said, "Not having them under a common framework, you do risk the fact that one is seen as better than the other," he said. "And the sad fact is that we need many more young people to go into the vocational route and to regard them as high quality and leading to high-quality jobs - and the risk is that we will fail to do that." He added: "My greatest fear is that vocational will continue to be seen as second best and available and taken by those who 'can't do anything better', as the phrase goes."
Latest on Diplomas Date: 15 Dec 2007, Publication: BBC News Online

Although Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly’s predecessor, was replaced shortly before Tomlinson presented his final proposals, Tomlinson reveals that both Clarke and David Miliband, the education minister, had encouraged him to work towards a major shake-up of the exam system. “Up to that point the system had been subject to piecemeal changes and that had not worked . . . Right up to publication of the report I had been encouraged by both the then secretary of state and his minister to be radical,” says Tomlinson Why did Kelly demur? Tomlinson does not know but says: “Two weeks ago in an interview Estelle Morris (who was education secretary before Clarke) said that it was difficult for any secretary of state to be remembered as the secretary of state who got rid of A-levels.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4290831.stm Wednesday, 23 February, 2005, 13:35 GMT Diploma 'missed chance' 

Ministers are now so committed to the diploma programme that the costs are bound to rise. After all, they may have only two years to get the qualifications sufficiently embedded to make it difficult for a new government to uproot them. Indeed, political uncertainty is one of the big problems with take-up. As head teachers have commented, how can you advise young people to embark on the new qualifications route when there is no guarantee it will survive a change of government? There is also concern that despite their job-related titles, the diplomas are not really vocational at all.  Even though Tony Blair described them as ‘vocational diplomas’, the government has steadily shifted away from this label. It dropped the first half of the official name of ‘specialist diplomas’; then it insisted the diplomas were not ‘vocational’ but ‘applied learning’.

Liberal Democrat children, schools and families spokesman, David Laws, said the government needed "to get its act together" on how our young people are taught and tested. "This delay may reflect government anxiety on how successful the diplomas will be. There is widespread scepticism in schools about whether they will be popular amongst students. "The existing diplomas are being rolled out too rapidly and without proper consideration being given to some serious practical issues. Children in rural areas particularly will find it difficult to travel between different schools to access the full range of diploma qualifications. We need an examination system which not only enjoys public support and credibility, but which provides qualifications relevant to every young person, encompassing vocational and academic approaches."

It is quite clear that the Government are currently hedging their political bets with the new Diploma, and in terms of actions over words, they are definitely unsure of its actual worth to parents. Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls confirmed that an A-Level review scheduled for 2008 will now be postponed and that a first review of 14-19 qualifications will instead take place in 2013. He said, “It has been argued in the past that Diplomas could only be a success if A-Levels and GCSEs were no longer offered as stand-alone qualifications, and that we should use the planned 2008 review of A-Levels to signal the end of these qualifications. But this is not the Government’s view and not a matter for us to pre-judge. We need to have time to consider the success of our Diplomas, and assess how far the changes we have already made to A-Levels and GCSEs have strengthened these qualifications.”

Whether the Diplomas will have any curriculum strength by 2013 is a pressing question, however.

Business on the Diploma

The way business sees the new Diplomas is fundamental, seeing as they were the body with the loudest cry for its introduction, or something of its like. Below are a some quotes that help give us a picture of their opinions regarding them so far.

Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI, following the Tomlinson Report, called on the government to fully promote the new Diploma qualification, "The government has embarked on a very ambitious plan to roll out this programme in a short space of time. If it is to be successful, the Diploma system must be properly promoted to students, parents, universities and employers," he said.

"The head of the Enterprise Business Unit at Vodafone, Kyle Whitehill, told a conference that "the two most important skills in the workplace are interpersonal skills and presentational skills". Not the acquisition of academic knowledge or evidence of the ability to memorise large slabs of information."

"The Tomlinson report reminds us of a time when change seemed seriously on the agenda. That change has drifted away from us. For those interested in how children learn, and how they fail, the fossilisation of the curriculum gives cause for concern. Looking back over the past hundred years or more, what is astonishing is how little the curriculum has changed. Middle class parents palpably do not trust the average teacher and Tomlinson is a consumer charter for such parents. They will demand their choice of curriculum. They will demand their set of combinations for their child. Above all else, they will fight to the death to prevent their own child going at 14 into a vocational stream.

"More worrying than the loss of certain subjects may be the loss of educational coherence that radical pupil choice could bring. Will the core proposed by Tomlinson be strong enough to give coherence and will the extended project for all pupils give enough depth? At 14 it is extremely hard to know ones own inclinations and aspirations, let alone any of the details of academe or of the world of work. Young people are likely to need guidance but who can be a reliable source of untainted advice? Teachers themselves are subject to bias, to perceptions of groups of pupils that rest on cultural stereotypes. Troublesome children are a pain to teach without additional support. They do tire out any teacher and the temptation to route them into easier subjects they will object to less must be almost overwhelming.

"Why is this sorting of children into sheep and goats likely to happen? Again it goes back to the genesis of the Tomlinson report. The ethos is functional. The aim is to help employers and universities to select candidates for the good things of this life. The Diploma will allow for clearer grading of pupils. The proposals deal with early leavers by assuming that they want and will be retained by a high status vocational programme. If they want that they will have to leave the country. What this pious hope ignores is the fact that such a programme will not be high status unless there is a major change in English social attitudes. Because of the lack of respect for vocational (i.e. non-professional) work and education, the middle classes will direct their children away from it and will have the knowledge and skills to do this successfully. Provision will simply divide by class.

"When interviewed, those not in education, employment or training between 14 and 19 years of age describe achingly normal aspirations, for a job, a house, a car, a family. They are not refusniks at all. There is no rebellion or rejection going on, just a slow drift away from a system that does not pay them attention. Young people themselves are painfully conscious of the endemic snobbery of our educational e should compel all children, male and female, middle and working class, to take manual trade subjects, from plumbing to hairdressing, and equally we should compel the same children to take suitably taught academic subjects of the most challenging kind. Dream of the day when a middle class parent storms up to the school to complain that their child has missed their session on plumbing because they were forced to study Latin.
Talk given by Alison West, Chief Executive, National Extension College, on 23 November 2004.

Higher Education on the Diploma


Commenting on the publication of the Tomlinson Report, Professor Michael Sterling, Chairman of the Russell Group said:-
"The Russell Group welcomes the Tomlinson Report and the important processes of consultation and debate that must now follow. The Report is wide-ranging and comprehensive, and will take some time to consider fully. Nevertheless there are elements which appear immediately attractive - such as the need to challenge and to 'stretch' the best pupils, the proposed refinement of assessment outcomes, and the reduction in the overall burden of assessment. Clearly the diploma proposals and the structuring of 14-19 as a single phase demand much more careful consideration, but these arrangements could offer, if properly implemented and resourced, a means of providing for a yet wider range of students to achieve the standards necessary to gain admission to Russell Group institutions."

At the launch of the new Diplomas, Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at Cambridge University, said: "We have had extensive input into the Engineering Diploma, with the goal of ensuring that it will be a suitably rigorous qualification for entry into higher education. The university strongly welcomes any moves that will encourage young people to study the sciences, maths and modern languages in particular at a higher level."

Speaking following the event today to mark the launch of the 14-19 Diplomas, Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter and Chair of the 1994 Group, said: "The 1994 Group believes that the 14-19 diplomas offer the potential to become a radical alternative to the existing curriculum. We recognise the strong potential the diplomas offer to provide the stretch that is needed to demonstrate the quality of school leavers at the highest level of achievement, but also, through a more holistic approach to the secondary educational experience, their ability to broaden the horizons of even the most disaffected pupils."

A lot of the above does come across as empty rhetoric when one takes a cursory glance over the admissions website and the statements made by individual HE institutions (see http://www.ucas.ac.uk/students/beforeyouapply/diplomas/14-19diplomas/statements) What is highlighted is HE's ambivalent approach to the Diploma model, and  few are certainly not convinced that it is the final say in a new qualification to remove A-levels as the current way of judging applicants. This is certainly the case when one looks at the institutions deemed as the most academic, The Russell Group.

It might be said, however, that HE is being perfectly reasonable when being cagey about accepting the new Diplomas. A change of government could easily signal a totally different future for the Diplomas and HE's response to them.


The Media on the Diploma


Mike Baker, the BBC correspondent has offered some interesting and very valuable web articles on the new Diplomas. I have selected many quotes from his correspondencies and laid them out below as they perfectly encapsulate many of the issues that surround the new Diplomas at present:-

"Ken Boston, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, insists the diplomas are not intended to produce ‘job-ready’ students. He says they are about producing young people with core academic skills, flexible soft skills such as problem solving and team-working, and some background knowledge of specific employment sectors. Yet this worries many teachers, who wonder how well diplomas will motivate non-academic students, particularly those who will soon be required to stay on in education until they are 18. This summer, Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University described the diplomas as ‘a disaster waiting to happen’. He says their purpose is confused as they are ‘trying to be all things to all people’."

"At present, schools and colleges offer a range of genuinely vocational qualifications, such as BTecs, City & Guilds, and OCR Nationals. Increasing numbers are applying for these courses, yet their long-term future is now in doubt. Although no final decisions have been made, there are fears that funding for them will be withdrawn as a way to ensure the wider take-up of diplomas. The government’s vision is for all young people to have a choice of three main pathways from the age of 14: GCSEs and A-levels, apprenticeships, and diplomas. They want each to be sufficiently flexible so that students can, if they wish, end up in university by any route. There are signs that the practical, hands-on and job-specific nature of apprenticeships is proving popular with growing numbers of young people who find little satisfaction in GCSEs and A-levels."

"But whether the ‘third-way’ approach of the diplomas, which are neither vocational nor purely academic, will be successful remains unclear. At present, it looks an uphill task. There is still a lack of clarity about exactly what sort of animal diplomas are. They could be the reform that finally ends the English disease of under-valuing applied learning. But they could also be the latest expensive and disruptive failure to reform a secondary school system that has been dominated by the so-called ‘gold standard’ of A-levels for more than 50 years. The stakes are very high indeed for Balls."

"So many reports on the intractable problems of secondary schooling and vocational education have come and gone that people are bound to ask if this is the revolution we've all been waiting for - or whether the wheels of English education are just revolving in the mud again. Indeed, prolonged exposure to education debates induces an almost Buddhist acceptance of life repeating itself, as policies are proclaimed, die and are then reincarnated by a new set of politicians in search of nirvana."

"Tomlinson has been charged with inventing a system for 14- to 19-year-olds that at one end will stretch the most able and enable the most sought-after universities to choose between them, while at the other stem the haemorrhage of young people who are turned off by schooling and either vote with their feet or sit sullenly at the back of the class causing trouble. Crucially, he must bring coherence and credibility to the fragmented arrangements for vocational education and training - currently more than 4,000 qualifications given by 114 awarding bodies."
Bridging the divide, by Mike Baker (http://www.mikebakereducation.co.uk/?articles=view&id=37)

Educationalists on the Diploma

A few quotes to end with here. They both point in different ways to serious threats to the Diploma model as a sustainable alternative to the traditional curriculum.

"Chris Woodhead is another former chief inspector of schools. He is unequivocal: “Tomlinson’s diploma is not the answer.” Instead he says “dumbed down” A-levels need to be made more difficult and urgently. He warns that both Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly need to get a “grip on what is a dangerous situation”. And, he adds, the officials who are speaking out should take stock. “Either the chief inspector of schools or the chief executive of the QCA are speaking with the tacit approval of the secretary of state or they are not. If they are not they should be sacked.”

"The history of GNVQ – still burned on the minds of some of the members working on the Diplomas – was one of innovative approaches to learning and recognition of achievement – some successful and others not – which were not allowed to mature and develop because they were viewed through the eyes of decision-makers who saw excellence only in traditional academic terms.  The “academic–vocational divide” ended up turning GNVQ into a pale and thus unattractive copy of GCSE and A level and consequently guaranteed that they were seen as inferior.  This was not inevitable from the first and indeed there was some excellent work done early on which identified that GNVQ developed skills of self-reliance, teamwork and evaluation (which underpin success in higher education and in employment) in a way that academic qualifications did not.  The failure to implement the full Tomlinson vision suggests the new Diplomas will start with disadvantage and second-rate status built in."
Submission to House of Commons Education and Skills Committee –
14-19 Specialised Diplomas, Rachael Maskell

My own thoughts on these perceptions

Thus it can be seen that there is a myriad and bewildering array of opinions, attitudes and criticisms of the new Diploma system. Most people want it easy, generalisations are much more preferable to complex, dry and searching text, but if the new diplomas are to navigate a course successfully over the next few formative, and essential years, then a speedy way of creating an understandable and attractive identity for the new diplomas is vital.

I think that this can be achieved by focusing on the tension between vocational and  academic learning that the diploma welcomely highlights, as Mike Baker pertinently singled out, and does bear repeating:-

"There is still a lack of clarity about exactly what sort of animal diplomas are. They could be the reform that finally ends the English disease of under-valuing applied learning."

I'd like to return to the 4th paragraph I picked up on from Tomlinson's letter at the top of this page. It seems to me that a way to follow Tomlinson's laudable desire for a "unified framework" is to offer a unifying model that incorporates both academic and vocational learning. The Diploma attempts to do this, but as we can see from the many quotes above, has yet to succeed. Therefore, the Diploma needs help to better approach the gap between academic and vocational learning; an assistant, if you like, that can offer a way of not seeing them as different, but somehow, fusing them. I will now attempt to begin to record my strategy of providing an "assistant", through my Vocademic Model, which is built through the next pages on RESEARCH, VOCADEMIA, IDEAS and PRACTICE in particular.