More than eight in 10 headteachers say the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) performance measure is limiting opportunities for their more vocationally minded pupils, according to a poll.
The new report, which comes as students sit their GCSE exams, reveals widespread concern that pupils with vocational talent are being failed by an increasingly academic school system.
It comes days after the Conservatives pledged in their manifesto to have at least 90 per cent of students studying the EBacc – a group of academic subjects – by 2025 if they win power.
Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of secondary school leaders in England say the school system should provide better outcomes for their vocationally and technically minded pupils, according to the report from The Key – an organisation that provides leadership support to schools.
It also reveals that provision in vocational and technical education, which includes subjects such as catering, construction and engineering, has become weaker in more than half (56 per cent) of secondary schools since 2014 because of changes to the school system.
And more than two-fifths (43 per cent) think splitting the curriculum into academic and vocational/technical streams would provide a solution.
According to the survey of more than 1,100 headteachers, 78 per cent said they have seen an increase in fear of academic failure among pupils since 2014.
One secondary school leader said: “How do you measure a child’s success? With their academic progress. The whole system is set up for that and if you’re not academic, you are seen as failing.”
Negative impact on pupils
Almost a third (31 per cent) think changes to the curriculum and school performance measures over the past two years have had a negative impact on pupils’ readiness for the workplace or further education.
An assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the North West said: “It doesn’t feel like the education system is doing the best for the children.
"Accountability pressures mean children are being encouraged to do humanities when a couple of years ago they would have been going into catering, and in our area there are a lot of opportunities in that industry.
“We aren’t going to force children down routes they shouldn’t really be taking, even if our school’s position in league tables suffers.”
Fergal Roche, chief executive of The Key, said: “As the UK embarks on its exit from the EU, building the skills and workforce for the future is especially important, and that means optimising the potential of every child.
"Of course, pupils should have access to a challenging and stimulating academic curriculum, but to truly work for all children, the education system needs to value and make space for different types of learning and success."
The government has pledged to introduce 15 new post-16 pathways in vocational careers like childcare and construction by September 2022.
However, some secondary school leaders worry that this could be too little, too late for pupils who might be "turned off learning" or "feel like failures" before they leave school.
One secondary headteacher in the South West said: “For some low-ability children, the new GCSEs are really demoralising and so we need to create opportunities for success at all levels.
"The curriculum needs to be more balanced and offer opportunities for children to access more vocational provision or qualifications that are suited to their needs.”