Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Disaster Waiting To Happen

Dippy diplomas- neither vocational fish nor academic fowl

BOM readers are only too well aware of the government's horrendous decision to raise the school leaving age to 18 (see previous blogs eg here). Now, with the decision already taken, the commissars are deperately scrabbling around trying to find something for those thousands of disaffected 17 year olds to do - apart from burning down their schools, that is.

This afternoon the Public Accounts Committee quizzed the mandarins from the Department for Children Schools and Families for some details.
Tyler was sitting beside a councillor from Cambridgeshire and as the session proceeded, our jaws fell open together. There are no more details - at least none that connect up to the real world. As the ever impressive Richard Bacon MP put it, "this is a disaster waiting to happen".

On the table was the NAO Report optimistically entitled Partnering for success: preparing to deliver the 14-19 education reforms in England. The title is the only upbeat thing about it.

The cornerstone of Labour's "plan" is their new Diplomas (subject list above). According to the NAO, "they aim to merge applied and general learning, providing alternative pathways for 14 to 19 year olds into further education, higher education and employment." But what that means in practice is an unholy mishmash of academic and vocational bits and pieces from a huge raft of disparate bodies, all stapled together and labeled "A Diploma".

So far, so bad. But there's worse:

"Unlike most existing qualifications for young people, it will not be possible for a single institution to provide a high-quality education in all the Diplomas, because the content of each Diploma is broad and ranges across both applied and general provision."

In other words, these disaffected teenagers won't be sitting in a classroom in a specific school but roaming around- often for miles - to a wide range of schools, colleges, hairdressing salons, KFCs, and anywhere else that provides some input to the ragbag. I think we can all see how that will go.

Worse still, no one institution has been given overall responsibility. The whole shaky edifice is being contructed on the basis of hundreds of local partnerships ("consortia"). And they involve virtually everyone you've ever heard of, including the terminally useless Learning and Skills Council which is already enmeshed in its own "partnerships" quagmire (eg see here and here).

The commissars are literally making it up as they go along. Here are some lowlights from the NAO report:
  • Mad timetable dictated from above- This entire project has been ordered by headline chasing politicos who haven't a clue how it could work; they've dropped it onto their Whitehall commissars who haven't a clue how it could work; they've dropped it onto the local authorities who don't know whether they're coming or going: "Consortia are concerned that aspects of the reforms which they have to implement, to a demanding timetable, will not be adequately thought through and trialled" (para 85); they can say that again
  • Employers not involved- vocational qualifications are only any use if employers are involved in the training (it used to be called an apprenticeship); but 45% of these local consortia haven't yet involved employers at all;
  • Vapourware- most of these diplomas haven't even been specced yet: unsurpisingly, consortia are "finding it especially difficult to get employers involved while the content of the Diplomas was not known, as partnerships were themselves unclear about employers’ potential contribution; employers understandably want to know precisely what is being asked of them and when" (p 79)
  • No logistical plan- "We found no evidence that the scale of the need to buy in provision is known or being assessed, or that potential risks, such as poor access or very long travel times for some young people, are being evaluated"(p74)
  • Wishful thinking- "the Diplomas are perceived to be designed for less able students, despite the fact that they are being developed as equivalents to existing qualifications" (p71)
  • Not enough staff- there are nowhere near enough qualified staff to teach these courses and no workable plan to get them
  • No funding plan- "Lack of clarity over future funding makes collaboration and planning difficult"- this is yet another set of demands dropped onto local authorities with no indication of how they will be funded

As Bacon suggested, the real risk with this whole half-baked enterprise is not the wasted millions it will undoubtedly cost us all. It's the fact that many of our less academic teenagers will be sucked into doing courses that are markedly inferior to the existing range of vocational qualifications (NVQs).

Our preening grandstanding rulers should hang their heads in shame.

PS All of this upheaval is ostensively being driven by the observation that the UK has a smaller proportion of 16-18 year olds in full-time education than our competitors:

The idea being that if we don't correct this shortfall, we will surely all perish in the inferno of global wossname. We're not convinced. First, quantity is never the same as quality, and forcing those teenagers to stay on for the kind of half-baked nonsense discussed this afternoon ain't gonna help anyone. Second, do we actually need everyone to be given more and more formal schooling? From the perspective of the national economy - which is how this is always sold - we need a mix of workers with different levels of skill and employment expectations. Indeed, recent migration experience should tell us the problem with our NEETS is not that they're insufficiently educated to find work, but that they won't take the jobs on offer.


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