Opportunities knock

Diplomas offer the skills and knowledge a competitive economy needs, so the CBI's predilection for A levels is puzzling, says Michael Arthur

July 3, 2008

It's been more than a week since the Confederation of British Industry chose to criticise the new wave of diplomas in science, languages and humanities (Times Higher Education, 26 June). I remain mystified as to why an organisation that claims to represent the interests of UK business has so spectacularly failed to see the significance of the biggest reform of secondary education in half a century.

The CBI urged the Government to "think again" about the three "phase 4" diplomas due to be introduced in 2011 and instead support A levels and GCSEs. This assessment of Britain's needs seems to be based on a limited understanding of the country's educational traditions rather than on an informed and intelligent analysis of its current needs. It is disappointing that the CBI has demonstrated a lack of leadership at such a crucial time in the development of the entire suite of diplomas.

Let us be clear - the CBI's opinions cannot possibly be based on a sound understanding of the educational principles behind diplomas. Rather, they appear to reflect an outdated bias that divides vocational and academic education into mutually exclusive camps. Diplomas are more sophisticated than that; they are not so much a qualification as an overarching framework bringing together academic and vocational elements. They are designed to be flexible, allowing young people to study to a range of levels, enabling them to follow the route that best suits their abilities and aspirations and provides the necessary stretch. Diplomas will guarantee "functional skills" in English, maths and ICT, depth and breadth of learning and vital employability skills.

Why do we need diplomas in science, languages and humanities? One good reason is because the UK is not producing enough scientists and linguists to meet the demands of this nation. The total number of science A levels taken in schools and colleges tells the story - the figure fell from 119,621 in 1997 to 109,681 in 2007. Although there was a slight rise last year, the downward trend is clear - 10,000 entries have been lost in a decade. This should be set against the overall increase in A levels taken over the same period, up from 662,163 in 1997 to 718,756 ten years later.

These changes are having an impact on the flow of young scientists not only into universities but also into the workplace. According to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 48 institutions offered physics degrees in 2005 - 31 fewer than in 1994. Since 1996, 26 universities have ceased to offer chemistry degrees. A total of five maths departments have closed since 1999.

This is having an impact on our international competitiveness. Two major pharmaceutical firms are known to be considering moving their research and development abroad because they cannot find science graduates in the UK. In addition, AstraZeneca has said it is having great difficulty in recruiting pharmacologists, physiologists and skilled clinical research staff. When faced with such warning signs, it must be evident that something needs to change. My belief is that persisting with the status quo or trying to patch up nearly 60-year-old qualifications - as the CBI suggests - is not an option.

Diplomas are one way to try to address these problems. They will offer a new way of learning, which provides an educational framework that will be interesting, challenging and stretching for the brightest youngsters while also stimulating young people across a whole range of abilities. Students taking diplomas will gain the experience of learning in a practical environment and in so doing they will understand context and achieve deep learning. They will also develop skills in critical thinking, independent learning, teamwork, problem-solving and communication. Armed with this qualification, young people will have the skills and knowledge to make the most of their next steps and realise their potential, whether in the workplace or at university.

It is simply wrong to say that diplomas do not have the support of the business community. Major employers have recognised the benefits diplomas could bring their workforce; Toyota and BT are among the big hitters who have thrown their weight behind them. I am looking forward to a period of serious engagement and consultation with UK industry about the importance of the entire suite of diplomas. This is all too important to dismiss on the basis of a poorly informed, premature and half-hearted consultation. There is a golden opportunity to revitalise secondary education and make a more effective, equitable system for all to produce the school-leavers and graduates on whom the future prosperity of our nation depends.

I hope the CBI will join in.

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