This summer will see the publication of the first round of accredited entry-level courses aimed at those not expected to pass existing exams.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is publishing them after Sir Ron Dearing recommended that recognition should be given to those unlikely to achieve grade G GCSE, foundation GNVQ or NVQ level 1.
For those working with children with special needs, these new qualifications arouse mixed feelings. Many fear a return to the O-levelCSE days.
Jean Salt, head of learning support at Hardenhuish Comprehensive, Wiltshire, and chairman of the National Association for Special Educational Needs' curriculum sub-committee, says: "The Government now seems to be saying that some children should be doing vocational courses and shouldn't be doing a broad and balanced curriculum. If you put special needs pupils into sink groups you are creating problems."
Simone Aspis, a campaigner for inclusive education, fears that "once people labelled as having learning disabilities start taking certain examinations they will always remain at the bottom of the league".
The QCA counters that the new qualifications recognise achievement below standards set by GCSE, GNVQ and NVQ, but there the similarity with CSEs ends. A spokesman said: "We are offering something tangible and realistic to work towards that is flexible enough to meet individual needs and is designed to motivate. These are high-quality qualifications that will be included in the national framework."
Progression is a key element: "each syllabus must provide a basis for progression to corresponding GCSEs and relevant GNVQs and NVQs", stipulate the criteria. Another key criterion is an emphasis on practical situations and relevance. "Each syllabus must be relevant to adult life and must be capable of use in a range of settings."
Though the entry-level framework will not be in place until September, many of the courses will be Certificate of Achievement qualifications that have been available in schools since September 1996 and will soon be assessed under the entry-level criteria. So it is possible to get some idea of how this mainly subject-based strand, at least, is working.
Market Field School, a special school in Colchester, Essex, with about 100 pupils with moderate to severe learning difficulties, autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties, has been offering the Midland Examining Group's Certificate of Achievement courses in basic literacy, IT, technology, RE, science and basic numeracy since last September.
"Along with two GCSEs - in art and drama - that's virtually our curriculum at key stage 4," says headteacher Peter Hewitt. "Special schools tend to follow practice-based life skills courses. I wanted subject-based courses - a similar curriculum to mainstream. It's the first time we've had an exam structure we consider appropriate."
Certificate of Achievement awards have also proved attractive to mainstream secondary schools and, in particular, they appeal to those with children with special needs. A survey of 120 secondary schools* carried out by Simone Aspis last year to establish which learners were likely to be entered for CoA awards found that the majority were children labelled as having learning disabilities.
At New Parks Community College, a Leicester comprehensive, science teachers are using a Midland Examining Group course, Science Plus, for children with special needs and children who underachieve - mostly because of absenteeism. "The course," says teacher Anthony Thomas, "has motivated the group to cope with lessons." The certificate group is mainly taught alongside GCSE pupils and some students have recently shifted into the GCSE group.
The course still needs some development, but it is respected in the school, Mr Thomas says. "We have to make sure pupils don't walk out of school with nothing and that if they really develop they can do GCSE."
For the QCA, the next step will be the introduction of the vocational and skills strands of the entry level awards, which will initially be aimed at post-16 education but eventually at 14-plus.
A spokesman for the examining body Edexcel said considerable interest had been registered from schools as well as colleges and other institutions.
One such centre is Manor House Centre Pupil Referral Unit in Milton Keynes, many of whose pupils have a long history of absenteeism and truanting. The unit has been working with the local further education college to see how their pupils can more easily use its curriculum and hopes that the key skills strand will fill some of their pupils' educational gaps.
Headteacher Pauline Clark says: "We're looking at it in terms of preparing our students for college and in terms of helping them gain any qualification they can. Motivation is the main problem. It's a question of finding the key for each individual child."
It will be some time before a verdict is reached on whether these qualifications are seen as divisive, or whether they turn out to be a gift to schools and colleges anxious to recognise achievement and motivate disaffected and struggling pupils.
* 'Why Exams and Tests do not help disabled and non-disabled children learn in the same school' by Simone Aspis. Available from Karen Barton, Action Research Centre for Inclusion, co Bolton Institute, Chadwick St, Bolton, BL2 1JW .