Wales is having to borrow education policies from England and play catch-up on new developments, such as vocational diplomas for teenagers.
Employer pressure may force Wales to adopt the specialised diplomas, which are being introduced in England after the Westminster government rejected the more radical reform proposals made by last year's Tomlinson inquiry.
The warnings came from Gareth Pierce, chief executive of the WJEC, the Welsh exam board, at a conference for heads of sixth forms in Cardiff last week.
He told delegates: "We are in a catch-up situation in Wales. It's the same for Northern Ireland."
The conference, organised by the Welsh Secondary Schools Association, heard more details about the specialised diplomas, which will be available to English pupils from 2008.
The WJEC has been involved, along with other exam boards, in working on the new vocational qualifications.
Pupils in England who decide not to take A-levels or BTEC qualifications will instead be offered five lines of learning from September 2008. These will be in ICT, health and social care, engineering, creative and media, and construction and built environment.
A further five choices will be added in 2009 and an extra four in 2010.
Specialised diplomas will be available at levels 1 to 3 for pupils aged 14 to 19.
Mr Pierce said: "The policy on these diplomas in Wales is unclear. But some people see it as almost inevitable that Wales will follow England if these specialised diplomas become recognised for employment."
He said that there was a strong employer involvement in setting up the diplomas through the Sector Skills Councils.
His remarks follow previous comments from David Raffe, of Edinburgh university, who said that Wales will find itself under pressure from the workplace to introduce diplomas - otherwise Welsh youngsters could be at a disadvantage when seeking a job.
A spokesperson for the Assembly government said that Wales was fully involved in the development of vocational diplomas.
Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, is expected to make a decision in the autumn about whether they should be rolled out in Wales, based on the advice and experience of officials.
* Examination boards must "reclaim the high ground" to ensure that the qualifications they offer mean something.
Mr Pierce told the conference in Cardiff that work is well under way to revise the specifications for A and AS-levels from 2008.
He argued that this was crucial as more and more universities set up their own admissions tests to try to distinguish between candidates. "We are reclaiming the high ground in terms of the value of qualifications so that they mean something," he said.
"There has been a failure to give higher education valid information about students. The number of admissions tests is growing.
"Universities say these tests are open to all, but there are fees to sit some and coaching is not available to all."
The value of coursework is also being reviewed as part of the debate over internal assessment - as previously reported in TES Cymru (May 19).
Mr Pierce said it was likely coursework would only be retained if it was found to be the only or best way to assess a particular subject. But declarations of authenticity would be needed to prove that it was original work.
"Coursework has become a victim of the electronic age. There are issues to do with plagiarism and the internet," he said.