Diplomas can provide your students with a teaching and learning programme that helps to equip them with vocational skills – but only if curriculum managers know how to deliver this new qualification. Glynis Frater guides you through

Under the current qualifications system, learners are offered a set of single options or vocational double options that do not link with the core and do not require the learner to connect and relate their learning. But the arrival of the diplomas from September mark a much-needed change by providing a composite approach that will help schools to engage, re-engage and motivate all learners across a wide range of abilities and using a variety of learning styles.

The reason they can do this is because they are unique qualifications that weave together all the elements providing the learner with opportunities to see connections and to practise and develop a wide range of skills in a variety of contexts. Each learner will be expected to have their own individual learning plan that will outline their objectives and targets linked to how their diploma will develop and provide them with opportunities for ongoing success and ultimate achievement of the qualification. For details of how the diploma has evolved, see the box below.

What are diplomas?

Diplomas are a new qualification providing flexibility and choice for all 14 to 19-year-olds learners, through a combination of theoretical and practical styles of learning focused on subjects and skills relating to work. They have been developed in collaboration with employers and universities to ensure their relevance, and that they will be valued by them. Their combination of essential skills, knowledge and relevant experience will provide an excellent grounding for further or higher education or skilled employment.

The diploma was first discussed as a way forward for many learners at Key stage 4 and 5 with the publication of the Tomlinson report: final report of the Working Group on 14-19 reform (DfES, 2004). In a letter in 2005 to the then Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, Mike Tomlinson summed up his rationale for the proposal:

The status quo is not an option. Nor do we believe further piecemeal changes are desirable. Too many young people leave education lacking basic and personal skills; our vocational provision is too fragmented; the burden of external assessment on learners, teachers and lecturers is too great; and our system is not providing the stretch and challenge needed, particularly for high attainers. The results are a low staying-on rate post-16; employers having to spend large sums of money to teach the ‘basics’; HE struggling to differentiate between top performers; and young people’s motivation and engagement with education reducing as they move through the system.

The subsequent 14-19 White Paper (HMSO, 2005) and implementation plan developed the diploma concept further, recognising that no single education institution would be able to deliver the full diploma programme and fostering the idea of partnership or collaboration between a group of institutions for achieving full delivery. Emerging from this is a much more holistic approach to planning the 14–19 offer where all stakeholders are involved in constructive and open dialogue.

The diploma lies within the National Qualification Framework (NQF) at levels 1 foundation, 2 higher, and 3 advanced. It combines elements of academic subjects and practical skills in a way that reflects the needs of business, industry and higher education at the beginning of a new century.

By 2013, there will be 17 diplomas – see: www.qca.org.uk/qca_13473.aspx The first five to come on stream in September are: construction and the built environment; information technology; creative and media; society; health and development; engineering. Each has been designed to meet the needs of specific sectors of industry and is grouped into what are termed lines of learning to reflect the breadth and depth of the curriculum within a particular sector of industry. The diploma requires the learner to develop an indepth understanding of a range of features of a particular industry through units of work that form the ‘principal learning’, demonstrate competence in a range of personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) through the context of the principal learning and show ability to put numeracy, literacy and information technology (IT) skills into work- and life-related situations.

Generic learning

Functional skills
The functional skills of literacy, numeracy and IT are an integral part of the diploma. Learners will not achieve a full diploma if they are unable to demonstrate competence at the appropriate level in all three. There are functional skills specifications at entry level, level 1 and 2. A learner working at level 1 will need to achieve level 1 functional skills and learners working at level 2 and 3 will need to achieve functional skills at level 2. While it is not essential that a learner develop and become competent at their functional skills through the context of the diploma, it would be a waste not to use the many opportunities for contextualising the development of these skills within the principal learning, additional specialist learning or the project for the diploma. For instance, there is a need for statistical analysis as part of the society, health and development (SHD) diploma. Statistics form an integral part of any maths GCSE and so it is surely prudent to provide opportunities to use the context of SHD to develop understanding of the concepts of statistical analysis and then use the findings to evaluate a problem or develop an argument.

Personal, learning and thinking skills
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has developed a single framework to enable all learners aged 11–19 to develop generic learning skills known as personal, learning and thinking skills. These have been developed in response to wide consultation with employers and educators who want the curriculum to reflect the needs of industry and business in the 21st century. There are six groups of skills within the framework, including management of self, managing relationships with others, and managing own learning and performance.

These skills are at the heart of the diploma, so the fundamental way teachers approach their development will be critical to the qualification’s success. Learners need to have opportunities to seek and find out for themselves, to be given situations where they can solve problems and find solutions. They need to be allowed to work in groups developing team strategies and reflecting on their contribution and the contribution of others to a team task or project. There is an imperative to allow learners to think critically and to reflect on their learning to foster a climate where learners know the goals they need to aim for and how they can achieve them.

For details of the different elements of learning PLTS will develop, see the box below.

PLTS – types of learning

Independent enquirers
Focus: Young people process and evaluate information in their investigations, planning what to do and how to go about it. They take informed and well-reasoned decisions, recognising that others have different beliefs and attitudes.

Creative thinkers
Focus: Young people think creatively by generating and exploring ideas, making original connections. They try different ways to tackle a problem, working with others to find imaginative solutions and outcomes that are of value.

Reflective learners
Focus: Young people evaluate their strengths and limitations, setting themselves realistic goals with criteria for success. They monitor their own performance and progress, inviting feedback from others and making changes to further their learning.

Team workers
Focus: Young people work confidently with others, adapting to different contexts and taking responsibility for their own part. They listen to and take account of different views. They form collaborative relationships, resolving issues to reach agreed outcomes.

Effective participators
Focus: Young people actively engage with issues that affect them and those around them. They play a full part in the life of their school, college, workplace or wider community by taking responsible action to bring improvements for others as well as themselves.
(Source: www.qca.org.uk)

Diploma project
The project forms part of the generic learning component of the diploma and is a standalone single-unit qualification. Designed to give learners an opportunity to draw on and integrate learning from each component of their diploma, it provides a good opportunity to demonstrate their independent learning skills. The topics should be chosen by the learner and should complement and develop principal learning and/or support individual progression. Learners select one of four units, to be completed over one or two years. Each unit offers a different type of project: a dissertation; an investigation or field study; a performance; an artefact. It is externally assessed by the relevant awarding body.  The box below outlines the key learning opportunities provided by the project.

 Diploma project key learning opportunities

  • To develop enquiring and independent learners
  • To explore new areas/methods of study
  • To demonstrate and further develop learning skills
  • To work individually or as part of a group
  • To apply the experiential learning cycle
  • To develop and apply technical skills
  • To make a written, visual or oral presentation of the completed project outcome

At level 3, there is a common structure and standards for each unit. These include criteria for learners who take the project, whether as the free-standing extended project qualification or as part of the generic learning of a diploma. At levels 1 and 2, the learner has simply to embark on a project within a set of criteria set by the awarding body.

Work-related learning
The involvement of business in the design and content of the diploma means that each learning element is applied to the context of the world of work. It is envisaged that learners will apply up to 50% of their learning directly to a work-related context. This does not necessarily mean that the learner will spend this much time in a workplace but that all learning will provide opportunities to practise the skills that will allow a learner to be work ready. For instance, the IT diploma requires learners to develop project management skills through the implementation of a real project. This project could be developed around a simulated work-related problem but developed in a classroom or workroom setting. The statutory requirement is still to provide 10 days actual work experience, but it is likely that learners will experience a greater exposure to business in a variety of different ways such as visiting speakers, visits to trade shows, practical work opportunities and use of the internet.

Experiential learning cycle
The experiential learning cycle puts into diagrammatical context the theory that describes learning as a process.  This suggests that knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. It emphasises the central role of experience in learning. Learning is identified and consolidated by reflecting on and interpreting an experience. Learning through experience can often mean that the learner retains the learning over a longer period of time.

The experiential learning process has been described as a four-stage ‘learning cycle’:

  • Stage 1: experience – students participate in an activity
  • Stage 2: reflection – pupils discuss the activity to articulate what has happened
  • Stage 3: generalisation – students draw out the lessons from their reflection on the activity
  • Stage 4: application – pupils apply lessons learned in new situations.


At foundation level, grades A*, A, B or unclassified (U) are available, with grade C being included on top of those at higher level and grades D and E added at advanced level. Each component part of the diploma will be assessed separately. It is envisaged that PLTS will be assessed as an integral part of the principal learning and that assessment of the principal learning will be through evidence gathered through an actual and/or a virtual portfolio. Strategies will need to be planned for assessing the skills, such as ensuring that learners involved in such activities as problem-solving and team-building record the process as well as the outcome. Individual learning plans and opportunities built in for review and reflection will also help to provide a transcript of progression and skills-building. The encouragement of a cycle of ‘plan, do, review/record and apply’ to all aspects of learning for the diploma will provide evidence of the development of increasing competence in PLTS.

The additional specialist learning can be any qualification that is listed in Section 96 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 and will be assessed according to the awarding body specification. The functional skills, developed either through the additional specialist learning or the principal learning, are assessed separately, with the assessment process requiring pupils to develop a portfolio of evidence and take a written online test. 

Pathways at Key Stage 4
The Key Stage 4 curriculum should offer a range of pathways that will meet the needs of all learners. GCSEs and A-levels will remain as part of a curriculum offer. For some pupils, these single qualifications will still be the right pathway for them. The core GCSEs of English, maths, science and a modern foreign languages (MFL) along with other statutory requirements such as personal, social and health education (PSHE), sport and religious education (RE) will also still need to be included as part of a diploma pathway.

Practitioners should work together to look for connections between the content of core and statutory specifications with that of the diploma. For instance:

  • elements of the science curriculum might marry with the construction and the built environment diploma
  • there are many and varied opportunities to develop English language skills while gathering evidence for the principal or additional specialist learning
  • there are many opportunities to practise maths concepts in the context of all diploma lines
  • a creative and media unit may provide an opportunity for graphic design and meet the statutory requirement for IT.

There is a profound opportunity to create a tapestry of learning with interconnections that weave meaning across a range of curricular themes. The flexibility this affords gives the curriculum planner the opportunity to create an innovative learning experience for all learners, those following a diploma pathway and those who have chosen a different way.

The Foundation Learning Tier (FLT) is another important aspect of curriculum reform and is an integral part of diploma progression for those learners who are working below level 1. This is being developed for learners in the post-14 sector who have learning disabilities or are for whatever reason unable to achieve their full potential through GCSE. Units and qualifications at entry level and level 1 will be combined in progression pathways, allowing learners to progress at a pace that suits them towards a level 2 outcome. Schools and their partners can use the FLT to provide the right programmes using the structure of the diploma to meet learners’ needs and aspirations.

Curriculum planning

The common format for the diplomas has been designed to make curriculum planning as straightforward as possible. Three questions underpin the design of the curriculum for a school or consortia:

  • What are we trying to achieve for learners?
  • How do we organise learning to achieve this?
  • How will we know if we are being successful?

The diploma offer will need to be planned over about two days of the timetabled week. However, there are opportunities for flexibility and creativity in how the diploma is timetabled and how it forms a part of the option structure – see the box below.

 Flexible timetabling of diploma: issues to consider

  • Time allocation for each aspect of learning
  • How statutory requirements are met within or separate from the diploma offer
  • How work-related learning, enterprise and personal development are planned
  • The allocation of time for level 1 and level 2 diplomas
  • How the diploma interacts with other subject areas
  • The way the day/week/year/key stage is structured

The diploma requires 600 guided learning hours (GLH) at level 1 and 800 GLH at level 2. Guided learning hours are not about contact time – they could include private study, work-related learning, e-learning or groupwork.

Schools beginning this journey in September have developed effective relationships with their partner organisations, blocked one or maybe two days a week to allow learners access to learning in other educational providers and trained their staff to deliver the qualification. The key to success is in developing effective partnership working where clearly defined protocols, channels of communication and reporting procedures allow for a seamless learning environment. The approach emerging from those planning delivery from 2008 is that there needs to be a common timetable across at least part of the week to enable learners to move seamlessly between their host institution and others.


Effective collaboration is essential in order to deliver the diploma. This essentially means aligning organisational goals, sharing a common vision and defining effective working arrangements and protocols.

The success of effective collaborative practice is based on detailed and structured planning that clarifies and agrees how activities will be organised, develops agreed joint procedures and defines roles and responsibilities. Having a learning agreement based on clearly defined expectations can help in the planning process and work to ensure consistent quality. Each organisation needs to work with their partners to develop a quality framework to underpin collaborative working – see the box below.

 Achieving effective collaborative working

  • Design and develop common practices to assure quality provision
  • Identify standards to assure quality teaching and learning
  • Develop effective quality assurance practices across the consortium
  • Develop common standards, criteria and quality assurance processes for information, advice and guidance (IAG), teaching and learning, achievement and assessment, retention, continuing professional development (CPD) and management


The introduction of the diploma will have cost implications. For example:

  • young people will move away from their host institution, incurring transport costs
  • employer involvement will require practitioners to forge relationships that take time and may require cover
  • training providers will need to be paid
  • risk assessment will need to be carried out and any insurance cover bought.

There is funding to support implementation and flexibility in how this might be distributed locally. 14–19 partnerships need to be entrepreneurial and exploit multiple funding streams and seek alternative sources of funding to support strategic activity. Funding is a critical factor in planning delivery of a diploma curriculum. A funding system needs to be in place that is equitable and transparent. Funding issues within a partnership need to be well managed and should be a priority in all strategic discussion and negotiation.

Staffing issues

All staff, not just those timetabled to teach it, need to have a sound understanding of the diploma, its make-up and structure and how it can be delivered to weave the curriculum together for the learner. Those delivering the diploma may come from all of the providers and they need to work closely together in developing joint delivery strategies.

Different models exist around the country. In some rural consortia, staff move around so learners can stay in their host institution and receive the benefits of expertise from elsewhere. In other consortia, learners travel to different institutions for different components of their diploma. Protocols need to be designed to ensure effective communication about such issues as attendance, dress code and absence. You need clearly defined procedures for monitoring and communicating progress and assessment.

Staff will need a comprehensive package of training and development that links into national training programmes as well as local initiatives. Staff involved in planning and implementing a diploma in any line of learning should make use of the resources and information available at: www.diploma-support.com. This site will develop to include a wealth of case study material that will provide examples of emerging practice and offer practical help and support.

Developing a programme of study across different components with a high level of emphasis on skills requires practitioners to be brave in their approaches to classroom or workshop management. Allowing the space to fit the needs of learners may mean a great many activities are taking place with learners working individually or in groups to find information, set targets, solve problems and make decisions. Practitioners need to foster an atmosphere of personalised learning where learners understand their own learning style and how they learn. Assessment for learning as well as assessment of learning will help to foster a high level of motivation and provide the practitioner with many opportunities to celebrate small nuggets of success – for more details, see the QCA website.

Exciting journey ahead

The move brought about by the diplomas from autonomous single educational institutions to a collaborative structure that makes the most use of people and resources is creating some exciting and innovative delivery models, teaching and learning practices and learner-focused opportunities. At the heart of this process is the learner and the genuine desire to provide an education for 14 to 19-year-olds that is fit for purpose and the 21st century and allows for all those taking part to achieve to their full potential.

The diploma is complex and a high degree of planning and collaboration is essential if it is to succeed. The emerging practice, exciting ideas and genuine enthusiasm of those who begin this journey in September is infectious and will help to inform all those who follow.

Top tips

  • Start early and learn from others who are starting in September 2008
  • Work closely with partner organisations developing a common goal, aims and objectives, policy, procedure and protocols
  • Allow time for the partnership to develop collaborative learning systems through effective management structures at both a strategic and operational level
  • Take advantage of national training programmes, but be aware that a consortia-wide CPD programme will need to be developed to underpin this to ensure sustainability and sufficient well-trained teachers to deliver the diploma
  • Carry out regular reviews to focus on progress made, development needs and issues and problems that need resolution
  • Ensure your strategy is clearly defined so that all learners receive the right information, advice and guidance
  • Negotiate joint timetable arrangements to suit all partners – the most common solutions are based around one or two days being devoted to diploma delivery across all partner institutions
  • Encourage applied and contextualised learning in all learning from Y7 to Y13
  • At all levels, stages and subjects, focus on skills, as they are at the heart of the planning and learning process
  • Ensure effective employer engagement as this is central to success
  • lImplement a cycle of quality assurance across the partnership, focusing on continuous improvement of outcomes

Useful websites

Read the related case study of all-girls school Newstead Wood in Bromley piloting an engineering diploma.

Glynis Frater, Head of Programme – Diploma Support 2010 or beyond, SSAT. Glynis has been involved in the design and implementation of the Diploma Support Programme since it began in 2006, and now works with schools who have not yet passed through the Gateway process, who will be delivering the diploma from 2010 or beyond