A hugely successful online learning course, credited with helping the Government bring about big improvements in schools' GCSE results, has been given a mixed reception by teachers.
Several staff contacted by The TES this week said that some schools were rejecting a course from Thomas Telford city technology college, which costs pound;3,000 per school per year, arguing that it is uninspiring and did little to motivate less academic youngsters.
However, other schools said it was extremely useful because it helped pupils who are disenchanted with academic courses gain credit for good work through a less traditional route.
Thomas Telford has been offering a range of online courses in information and communications technology and maths to other schools since 2000.
Its intermediate general national vocational qualification course, worth four top GCSEs for students who pass, is now used by about 700 English secondary schools. A separate "double award" GCSE programme, worth two passes at A* to G, is taken by 200 schools. Thomas Telford also offers a vocational A-level course, taken by 180 schools.
Schools pay pound;3,000 each for a licence which entitles them to run the courses for a year. Five days' training are provided for teachers, and schools also get access to Thomas Telford's online curriculum for all subjects. Several teachers and advisers were equivocal about the GNVQ course. An adviser from one of England's largest local education authorities said: "Heads have been led to believe that by itself the course would improve their results. Some have found out it's not quite the magic potion it purports to be."
Ken Syrett, head of information and communications technology at Thomas Cowley high school, a secondary modern in Spalding, Lincolnshire, said the school had dispensed with the GNVQ course this summer after two years.
This year, only two of 120 pupils who took it passed. He said: "I felt it was for much better ability children than ours."
Several teachers and experts said Thomas Telford's GNVQ course, in which students are guided through a series of assignments as part of the six-module qualification, was only effective if supported by good teaching.
But critics question whether schools fully appreciate the implications. Some view the course as a low-cost option in the face of tight budgets and the shortage of teachers qualified in information and communication technology.
Lindsay Coleman, head of ICT teaching and learning for Birmingham education authority, said: "People hope that it will be a fix-all; that you buy the package off the shelf and there it is. The reality is that it requires input from schools."
But Mike Danvers, head of Stanley high school, in Southport, said: "The pupils absolutely love it, particularly because it's a skills-based course, which will attract more of them than a traditional course. We are on track for 89 pupils to get four GCSEs through this next year."
Sir Kevin Satchwell, head of Thomas Telford, said: "I do not think 1,000 schools would buy it if they did not want it." He said that the school had never sold the courses on the basis that they did not require teaching support, and had 400 letters of support from schools.
All of Thomas Telford's pupils spend around four hours a week in lesson time doing the course in Years 9, 10 and 11.
Thomas Telford's website features research by Professor David Jesson, of York University, showing that more than 33 per cent lower-ability pupils who used the course gained five GCSEs at C or better last year, compared to 7 per cent among all pupils.
WHAT'S ON OFFER ONLINE
Thomas Telford's is one of several online courses available.
* Varndean school, in Brighton, offers a GNVQ ICT for up to pound;3,500 and a course for GCSE in applied ICT for pound;2,000.
* Brooke Weston, a CTC in Corby, Northamptonshire, offers both of these qualifications, plus one for applied business GCSE. All cost pound;3,000.
* Kingshurst CTC, Solihull, has a science GNVQ course. The cost is pound;2,995 for a two-year contract.
* Dixons city technology college, Bradford, has created a CD-Rom course for applied business studies GCSE with a one-off charge of pound;2,250.
All the courses are registered with Curriculum Online, so schools can reclaim pound;10 per pupil on signing up