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One of my priorities at the RSA has been to build on the reputation and current strength of our work on education.

Our Opening Minds curriculum is taught in over a hundred schools and has influenced planned reforms across Key Stage 3 (11-14). We now want to work with a range of partners to develop insight and ideas across other key aspects of schooling.

As we seek to widen the scope and reach of our work, our Academy in Tipton will be the practical embodiment of our ambition to develop a new model of schooling to develop the citizens of the future.

The opening of the Academy will coincide with the launch of the first five of the Government’s new 14-19 Diplomas. By 2013 there are supposed to be 14 of these Diplomas in areas ranging from Hair and Beauty to Engineering. The Diplomas are being introduced alongside GCSEs and A levels and represent a watered down version of Sir Mike Tomlinson’s recommendation that all post 14 provisions should be delivered through a single diploma framework.

Although many in the education world find it hard not to see the Diplomas that are being introduced as a missed opportunity to overcome the academic vocational divide, everyone recognises that even delivering the current proposals is a huge challenge.

So it is worrying to read two recent progress reports. The first is a detailed assessment by the Commons Education and Skills Committee. While the Committee recognises that the process of introduction is still officially on track, they raise a number of concerns ranging from the general – the clarity of purpose among those involved in designing the fist five Diplomas - to the specific – the inadequacy of giving teachers just three days training in how to teach and manage the courses, or the logistical challenges of 14-16 year old students receiving their learning in more than one institution.

The second report was from the Edge Foundation and confirmed the worst fears of those who held to Tomlinson’s original vision. Edge’s survey of teachers and FE lecturers found that almost two-thirds of them believe the Diplomas will have a lower status than GCSEs and A levels. The Government’s stated aim that the Diplomas will be seen as relevant to students across the ability range lacks credibility among those who most need to believe it.

It is hardly surprising that there are teething problems with the Diplomas - the timetable set by the Government is very ambitious. Major change processes rarely look entirely convincing at their halfway point.

The real cause for concern is that the Diplomas are trying to do an incredibly hard job in bridging the academic vocational divide. This is a task that has been tried and failed repeatedly, but it is vital if our education system is to provide opportunities and fulfilment to learners and the right skills for the economy.

But success more than anything else relies on the whole secondary and FE system throwing its weight behind reform. The combination of the major practical barriers to delivery and the continuing evidence that many teachers and schools (particularly those catering for more privileged pupils) have failed to engage with Diplomas, suggest that the odds of success are diminishing.

Given his commitment to education and skills and to widening opportunity to all it is difficult to see any more urgent issues in Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministerial in-tray.


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