Able pupils poorly served by diplomas

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Just one-fifth of teachers think ministers’ flagship new diploma qualification is “suitable” for pupils who want to go to university, according to research from a well-regarded education charity.

The figure suggests that diplomas – launched with fanfare by Whitehall last autumn – are still fighting for status in the increasingly competitive market for teenage qualifications.

As well as long-standing A-levels and GCSEs, other exams that have become popular in recent years include the International Baccalaureate and Pre-U.

Diplomas were designed to bridge the gap between academic qualifications such as A-levels and vocational qualifications such as B-techs, by being more practical than A-levels but more academic than B-techs.

Ministers hoped they would better prepare highly academic pupils for work, and encourage pupils who are not academic to stay in education past 16.

The Sutton Trust survey of teachers, however, shows that only a quarter find the diploma “suitable for the academically able”. By contrast, 93 per cent regard them as “suitable for those who want to pursue a vocational route”.

Jim Knight, schools minister, said: “The vast majority of higher education providers have now said they accept the Advanced Diploma as a route onto their undergraduate courses, including the Russell Group and 1994 Group” – the organisations representing what are generally regarded as the top and second tiers of British universities.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, the university umbrella group, said: “Diplomas provide a new route to higher education, and enable wider accessibility for students to develop the skills that best meet their aspirations. Universities have been involved in the development of diplomas in a bid to ensure they are fit for purpose for entry to university.”

But so far Oxford and Cambridge have endorsed only engineering as a worthy route for their undergraduates. They have described the remaining three subjects, creative and media, construction and the built environment, and information technology, as inappropriate preparation for any of the subjects they teach. Further subjects are set to be launched.

The Sutton Trust news follows a series of blows for diplomas. These include recent freedom-of-information figures showing the most popular diploma so far is in creative and media – a subject that is a long-running bugbear for many business leaders.

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