This post on the government's proposed new diplomas for sixteen and seventeen year-olds, which I wrote back in July, has been getting a bit of attention recently, with links from a couple of other sites, including a few hundred hits from Jerry Pournelle's blog. Readers who have read my original post, or who have read about this issue elsewhere, may recall that the diplomas were to be essentially vocational, including among their ranks the "Advanced Media Diploma", which, among other challenging tasks, would require examinees to "critically respond to a range of computer games", and print banners for a party. Back in July I intimated a mild scepticism regarding their worth, and suggested that, regardless of their (apparently limited) value as vocational qualifications, they would not (and, indeed, should not) be regarded as being equal to A-levels as academic qualifications.
Now I read that researchers at Oxford University have reached a similar conclusion. The Nuffield Review, led by Professor Richard Pring, said that the implementation of diplomas had been "rushed", described them as "the latest in a long line of broad vocational qualifications occupying the ground between academic qualifications and apprenticeship", and claimed that they would "suffer in the shadow of A levels", being regarded by teachers as being of less academic value, and therefore being taken primarily by academically weaker pupils. This follows the generally unenthusiastic reception that diplomas have received from university admissions tutors, of whom only 38% said that they saw them as "good alternatives" to A-levels.
And, of course, the Nuffield Review, and the admissions tutors, are right. No good teacher is going to want any decently intelligent pupil to undertake a diploma in travel and tourism, hair and beauty, or "Advanced Media", in preference to pursuing an A-level in a traditional subject such as maths, English or history. And there is no way that any of the former group of subjects could be possessed of anything like the academic rigour of any traditional A-level, even after the considerable lowering of standards that has taken place over the past twenty years or so. It has been suggested that the government's ultimate wish is to do away with A-levels (and GCSEs) altogether, and to render the new diplomas the major educational qualifications pursued in our schools. Arguably, that need not be too great a disaster: after all, there is no inherent reason why diplomas in academic subjects should be less rigorous than A-levels, and to the extent that qualifications are being made manifestly easier, there is no reason why this should be any more the case with diplomas than with A-levels (personally, I would like to see school exams made more difficult, and am unconcerned whether this happens within the framework of A-levels or of diplomas, so long as it happens). But under the government's present proposals, with diplomas consisting almost exclusively of essentially vocational qualifications, it is clear that A-levels will be seen as, and will be, more academically valuable.