The damning attack by John Hillier, chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, comes just days after Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, was asked by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard to carry out a full review of courses in schools and colleges.
Students face a limited choice of General National Vocational Qualifications because most centres are offering exactly the same courses as each other, he said.
"Everybody does business because they were previously doing business studies, " he told an audience of trainers and employers last week. "Some do leisure and tourism because it's a bit like geography. Some do health and social care because it's a bit like biology."
While schools and colleges concentrate on subjects established prior to the new qualifications, few are offering GNVQs in courses in topics vital for sustained economic recovery, such as manufacturing or engineering, which is being piloted this year.
Expansion of manufacturing and engineering courses required co-operation between schools and colleges, not competition, said Mr Hillier, speaking at a conference organised by the Southern Science and Technology Forum, a curriculum advisory group for schools and colleges.
But the funding mechanisms, which encouraged institutions to increase student numbers, did not always help partnership arrangements, he said.
A total of 162,161 students enrolled for GNVQs this year. Of these, 57, 596 (35 per cent) are taking business, while 34,024 (21 per cent) are taking health and social care and 30,011 (18 per cent) leisure and tourism. Just 1,171 students, less than 1 per cent of the total number, are taking manufacturing while only slightly more (5,409) are studying for a GNVQ in science.
Only 7,839 students are taking one of six new GNVQs, including engineering, which are being piloted this year.
Mr Hillier criticised some schools and colleges for failing to give impartial advice to 16-year-olds preparing for GNVQs. He urged Sir Ron Dearing in his review to focus on the real choice available to youngsters.
"We have a system which potentially offers a range of choice," said Mr Hillier, who was sharing a platform with further education minister Tim Boswell. "I am not sure that choice is generally available to all but a few young people."
Mr Boswell said he was aware of criticism surrounding competition between schools and colleges. Referring specifically to proposals by schools to open new sixth forms, he said each application was considered on its merits.
"We are concerned about the overall range of choice and curriculum differences. If you were going to destabilise an FE college it would be a matter of concern." Mr Boswell said there were cases where a school sixth form was not feasible and franchising, where schools and colleges share courses, would be preferable.
He also suggested the number of proposed sixth forms being turned down was higher than those accepted. But this claim is not borne out by the latest Department for Education figures. Since new guidelines for school sixth forms were published in February 1994, 30 applications have been approved and 22 rejected.
Ten applications were approved during the past three months when just six proposals were rejected. A further 31 applications are awaiting a decision from the DFE.
John Hillier added that franchising arrangements involving co-operation between schools and colleges were more common in some parts of the country than others. In spite of the rapid growth of GNVQs to date, it was vital to increase the range of courses on offer to meet future growth targets. "What we have done so far is the easy bit. We have won over people who were willing to change, " he said. "The rest will be much more difficult. We will have to include people who don't want to do it."