TENS OF thousands of teenagers are taking a new qualification worth up to four good GCSEs but which government experts say an average 11-year-old could pass.
Half of all secondaries are estimated to be opting for the OCR national level 2 in ICT, where tasks include sending an email and searching the internet.
It is being adopted as a replacement for the GNVQ in ICT, which controversially helped many low performing schools leap up the league tables. As with its predecessor, schools can use the OCR exam to gain the equivalent of four A*-C GCSEs, even though it only requires the teaching time of one.
But a document leaked to The TES shows consultants from the Government's National Strategies have found a pass in the qualification's compulsory unit "generally" equals level 4 of the key stage 3 national curriculum - the standards expected of an 11-year-old. Some points matched level 5, those of a 14-year-old.
The revelation is a new blow to the Government's attempt to ensure vocational qualifications gain parity of esteem with academic ones.
A local authority ICT adviser has rated some of the qualification's most popular optional units and told The TES he found exactly the same standards uncovered by the National Strategies consultants.
"The demands of this specification are very low indeed," he said. "Schools are using it to get soft certificates. Many are now putting all their students in for this in the expectation that they will all pass."
Some schools argue the consultants' verdict is too harsh. Mike Reid, an ICT teacher at Broughton Hall high in Liverpool, said: "The level of the tasks they have to perform are industry standard."
To gain a distinction in the OCR national, equivalent to A* GCSEs, pupils must master extra tasks that include using quotes and words such as 'and'
and 'or' when searching the internet. The local authority adviser described it as a "tick-box" course, enabling E grade pupils to gain the equivalent of Cs.
A spokesman for the OCR exam board said the National Strategies consultants could not have carried out a genuine comparison because the first results of the new qualification or details about the candidates taking it were still unknown.
He said: "The ICT national level 2 is doing incredibly well because it was created in partnership with teachers and is interesting enough to be very learnable for students."
Clare Johnson, a National Strategies ICT programme adviser, said the conclusions by consultants from the West Midlands were part of a draft document that would not be distributed to schools. She did not know of anything that contradicted their conclusions, but said comparing vocational qualifications with an academic programme of study was inappropriate.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said it will monitor the new qualification.
A leg up the tables, page 12