Just one in three diploma students pass, says Ofsted

Students learning bricklaying About 11,000 students signed up for diplomas in their first year

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Only about a third of students who took Labour's flagship diplomas in England had managed to achieve them two years on, Ofsted has found.

Inspectors said the vocational parts of courses inspired many learners, but that they had been let down by English and maths teaching.

The report said the diplomas, which combine practical and academic learning, were too complicated.

And many students failed to understand what was required of them.

Diplomas are alternatives to GCSEs and A-levels and offer learners the opportunity to develop vocational skills using industry-standard equipment.

Schools, colleges and businesses team up to offer the qualifications with students travelling between them to attend their courses.

Former Schools' Secretary Ed Balls said he hoped they would one day replace A-levels as the "qualification of choice".

'Highly problematic'

But the take-up has been slow with just 11,000 students starting them in the first year. And of these, only 4,000 had gained the qualification after two years.

Start Quote

The complexity of the qualification is proving a real challenge to both learners and institutions”

End Quote Christine Gilbert Ofsted chief inspector

Some 36,000 learners started courses in 2009-10 which are yet to finish.

However, the Ofsted evaluation of the qualification found some elements worked well.

This was especially true of the main subject area of the qualification known as "principal learning".

Many learners responded well to the opportunity for active and practical learning and managed to develop their independent learning in this area. And behaviour and engagement was good in most places visited by inspectors.

But the part of the course covering English, maths and ICT or "functional skills" was "highly problematic", according to Ofsted.

This part was often taught in isolation, mostly back at schools and colleges, and many students did not realise that "functional skills" were an important part of their course.


Most thought that the "principal learning" - the specialist learning about their chosen subject - was the only part of their diploma.

However, many supporters of the diploma say it is this part of the qualification that makes the courses more demanding than other options.

Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert said: "In some areas diplomas are starting to provide young people with valuable learning opportunities and work-related skills.

"However, a number of problems stand in the way of more young people benefiting from the high quality learning seen on some of the visits for this survey.

"The complexity of the qualification is proving a real challenge to both learners and institutions, with only just over a third of the first cohort gaining a diploma after two years."

She said more needed to be done to improve the teaching of functional skills and make it more joined up with the main subject content.

The report evaluated the success of the diplomas in their second year of operation by visiting 21 of the groups of schools, colleges and employers offering the qualifications.

The first five diplomas, in information technology, health, construction, media and engineering were introduced in 2008, and schools began offering a further five, in business, environmental studies, hair and beauty, hospitality and manufacturing last year.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Ministers have already made a number of changes to the diploma to make it easier to offer this qualification.

"Professor Alison Wolf has also been appointed to lead the independent review of vocational qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds, and we look forward to seeing her report next year."

National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Russel Hobby said Ofsted's conclusions about diplomas resonated with his members' experiences.

"Learners and teachers are enthusiastic but find the system complex. We can only be thankful that they didn't get the uptake initially projected!

"The report raises doubts about the capacity to expand further; a fear compounded by decisions taken by the government in recent months. It has dammed the diploma with faint praise whilst reducing levels of centrally provided support."

Read a selection of your comments:

I teach the diplomas in the private sector and the findings are true, the problem lies in the standard of teaching in schools. Many young learners arrive with little more than entry level two or three functional skills which in many cases is three to four years below the level for their age. The standards in comprehensive schools must improve for these young people to have any chance of gaining the diploma and moving on to a successful apprenticeship/career.

Geoff Smith, Cheshire

I studied for the Level Two Higher Diploma in Construction and The Built Environment for two years, and during this time the goalposts relating to the course content and the marking scheme were often changed. After our work had been marked we would have to add extra pieces as the examiners were never satisfied. Many people at college struggled to complete and keep up with the work as although we were doing GCSE's, the coursework for the diploma was nearer to A-Level standard. Whilst all my pieces of work were at Grade A, when I got my final results my grade had been lowered to a B. This is because the marking of the course was done by picking a few students at random from each college group and marking just their work. Then if this persons work was marked even slightly too high by the college tutor, everyone else in the group had their grade reduced by the same percentage. This made the course very complex and unfair.

Lisa Waterson, Hemsworth, Pontefract

I studied the Engineering Diploma for the past two years at GCSE level and was lucky enough to achieve an A. But it is very confusing as there are so many different elements to it such as functional skills in maths, English and IT and also an independent project. All these need to be passed to be able to gain a full diploma even if there is a high grade in the core learning of the diploma.

Scott Tranter, Coventry

I chair the Engineering Diploma Partnership. Many students are still completing the Diploma but already have done well in the Principle Learning. Functional Skills is a problem but is being re taken and students are learning how to tackle the questions which were more complex than GCSE English and Maths. Advanced students did well with a 96% pass rate and 87% of those applying to university being offered places. It is a complex qualification and equivalent in full to seven GCSE's or three A-levels. Many students have been inspired on the course but the key to success is not being taught only in a classroom but being involved with colleges, employers and higher education in different settings.

Graham Lane, London

We took on an apprentice who has a Creative and Media Diploma in the summer. Functional Skills was crucial in our decision to target Diploma holders in our recruitment. They may be hard, but that's make them very worthwhile.

Jonathan Wells, Houghton le Spring

I disagree, I did the diploma for IT Practitioners at NRC in Northern Ireland and it was fantastic. Some people in the class failed it and some did quite poor however I think the balance was just right. I got straight distinctions equivalent to three A-levels at grade A and I was very happy with this. I am now at the University of Ulster studying computer science and due to complete my final year next year and still doing well. Currently I am carrying out my Diploma in Industrial studies which I love. This is part of my degree and must be done in the third year. I think the diploma has helped me 100% and it had also enabled me to start up a part time local business which is still very successful today. I completed the diploma in 2008 and it continues to help me today.

Ryan Scott, Coleraine

Diplomas are only highly problematic when those involved do not know what is expected of them. They require a new mindset for teachers and lecturers where everyone is equally accountable for the success of the learner. This calls for collaboration, hard for institutions that are in competition for students. The diploma is an excellent qualification to prepare and inform learners about work but it has suffered from poor press, poor PR and a lack of training for teaching staff - unfortunately the losers will be the students who need something different to motivate them to continue with their education as this government will no doubt now see this report as an opportunity to kick the qualification into touch and consign would be learners to GCSEs and failure.

Sally Butler, Lostwithiel, Cornwall

My son took the ICT diploma 2008-2010 and I was less than impressed with the communication and organisation, but attributed this to some extent to the first time/guinea pig effect. The diploma was viewed with suspicion (I won't use "disdain") by the university he applied for, and I was not best pleased when a locally assessed A grade for one of the units was moderated to a C with no chance for my son to revisit it. However, all ended well when he got his first choice course and university.

Barney Rubble, Sheffield

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