Students of average ability are being ignored by a government scheme intended to raise the achievements of all 14 to 19-year-olds, the Department for Education and Skills' own research reveals.
Academics say pathfinder projects are targeting disaffected pupils and high achievers and paying less attention to pupils in the middle.
Ministers want to increase the range of subjects and types of study available to students as part of their 14 to 19 reforms.
An inquiry led by Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, is expected to recommend later this month that a new diploma should replace GCSEs and A-levels in an attempt to broaden pupils' knowledge.
Schools in pathfinder areas are expected to work with colleges, employers and charities in an effort to get young people involved in learning.
But the evaluation of the projects' first year says they are failing to develop a coherent 14 to 19 curriculum and prioritising 14 to 16-year-olds.
"Access to key skills post-16 was one of the least addressed aspects of the initiative, with half of pathfinders indicating this was not among their objectives," the report says.
Projects were also making little effort to break down differences in course choices based on gender or ethnic background.
"14-19 Pathfinders: An Evaluation of the First Year" was carried out by Jeremy Higham, Gill Haynes, Caroline Wragg and David Yeomans of Leeds and Exeter universities.
The report's findings are based on two surveys of the 25 pathfinder projects which were launched in January 2003 and on case studies. The authors acknowledge that the projects are not yet fully developed.
Their report says positive progress has been made in building partnerships, improving advice and guidance to young people and the development of a broader curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Gifted students will also benefit from accelerated learning, the report says. But there is little evidence that provision is being made for slower learners.
Efforts to broaden the 14 to 19 curriculum are being inhibited by a number of factors. These include lack of funding, concerns about the quality of courses, lack of adequate staff training and potential effects of school league tables.
There is also a problem due to the discrimination between vocational and academic qualifications. The report questions whether enough is being done to promote participation in work-based learning.
Introducing or increasing the availability of Modern Apprenticeships was omitted from the objectives of 10 of the projects.
The report highlights good practice in a number of pathfinders (see right).
In Coventry, students receive live lessons over the internet from expert teachers in German, English and sociology.
Seven very able girls and three boys in Warwickshire took part in a gifted and talented course in motor vehicle studies.
And a partnership between three schools and a college has created Central Gateshead sixth form. It allows young people to remain at their current schools for post-16 studies in an attempt to raise participation.
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