Thousands of young people experience failure unnecessarily because the current qualifications structure is based on the simplistic idea that all 16-year-olds can be defined as intellectuals or technicians, according to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
"Young people do not come with academic or vocational labels around their necks. They represent a continuous spectrum of talent, tastes and experiences, " say its researchers, whose findings underpin some of Sir Ron Dearing's final recommendations for the 16-19 syllabus.
The Gatsby study reveals that around 30 per cent of A-level students either abandon their courses or fail their exams - which means that 80,000 young people each year expend a considerable amount of time and effort to no avail. The equivalent failure rate for advanced general national vocational qualifications is estimated at around 40 per cent, though it is too soon for an accurate figure to be available. One reason for such waste is that students are discovering too late that they have been over-ambitious in choosing a course which does not reflect their performance at GCSE, or simply that they have chosen wrongly.
The obvious solution would be to enable students to transfer between courses without having to start again from the beginning, or to create a foundation course common to all post-16 pathways in order to broaden the curriculum and ensure that students make informed choices about specialisation.
The purpose of the Gatsby inquiry was to explore how much scope there is in the present system for transfer between A-level and Advanced GNVQ, and how much common ground there is between A-level and GNVQ courses.
The conclusions are not particularly encouraging. What emerges, the researchers stress, is a picture of the distinctive nature of A-level and GNVQ.
In subject matter, type of knowledge or skills covered, course structure, teaching and learning methods and assessment, the emphasis is consistently different in the two qualifications.
The study selected five subject areas which seemed to offer potential for crossovers. They found few instances where three A-level subjects match one GNVQ subject area, though two of the most popular GNVQ areas - leisure and tourism, and health and social care - did so.
For example, a student taking A-levels in human biology, psychology and sociology would be able to transfer to GNVQ health and social care, and vice versa. But the GNVQ engineering student who changed his or her mind would be too far behind to transfer to A-levels. Business GNVQ and business studies A-level had little in common, and a swap between science GNVQ and science A-levels would be feasible only for half a term.
New arrangements, warn the researchers, "would not be easy for teachers to devise or operate with current syllabuses. They would require considerable ingenuity in re-ordering or re-grouping topics".
The researchers also found that few A-level pupils actually choose three subjects that match a GNVQ area - unsurprising, considering the vast number of possible subject combinations. In short, the two qualifications have developed separately, with different objectives.
The Gatsby study suggests a range of immediate and long-term measures to help develop common courses and transfers.
Immediately, minor modifications to syllabuses could help to do this in the areas where it is currently possible.
Common subject matter between GNVQ and A-level should be clarified, with topics set out in a common format.
Some of the study's recommendations have been explicitly adopted in Sir Ron Dearing's final report: the need for smaller advanced GNVQ awards (the current 12-unit GNVQ makes it difficult to combine with A-level) and a reformulated AS level, and the need to integrate GNVQ and A-level syllabuses.
Sir Ron has recommended that the new joint committee of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority agree a timetable for the introduction of new GNVQs and A-levels in related areas.
The Gatsby researchers hint that their search for greater coherence in post-16 qualifications was restricted by political imperatives - in particular the requirement to preserve the purity of A-level. "There was a desire to bring about greater coherence without adding yet another administrative upheaval to the educational process.
"That said, as the study unfolded, it became increasingly clear that a minimalist approach is far from ideal and that, if progress is to be made, some more fundamental changes may be needed."
The Gatsby foundation will now develop draft syllabuses for A-level and GNVQ. It will also carry out further research into the reasons why students drop out, and ask schools and colleges whether they think common courses could be a solution.
The researchers found that 50 per cent of GNVQ students and 43 per cent of A-level students would have welcomed the chance to do a foundation course combining A-level and GNVQ before they decided which route to follow.