Under the proposals, 14-year-olds could soon be able to study GCSE vocational courses which are currently only available to sixth-formers and college students. Ministers have asked exam advisers at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to review two sets of such courses.
Vocational GCSEs would allow pupils to combine courses in catering, construction and retail with their traditional GCSE subjects.
Announcing the proposals this week, the authority's chief executive, Nicholas Tate, said: "Vocational GCSEs would retain the distinctive features of a GNVQ - a strong portfolio basis and sharp vocational and occupational focus. These are strengths of GNVQ which have motivated young people of 16"
He said that ministers regarded the plan as the natural extension of a decision to rename advanced-level GNVQs as vocational A-levels from September.
The idea is to allow 14-year-olds not motivated by conventional exams to have access to vocational courses available to sixth-formers and college sudents, and to allow the qualifications to enjoy the same status as GCSEs.
At present job-related courses are equivalent to four GCSEs. QCA officials have advised ministers that "vocational GCSEs" should be halved in size and graded on the same A*-G scale as GCSEs, rather than using the current system of merits and distinctions. Introduction by 2002 is recommended. A response from ministers is due shortly.
Part one GNVQs, equivalent to two GCSEs, are already available in a limited range of subjects. A QCA spokesman said no decisions had been reached about the future of existing GNVQs.
Since their introduction in 1992 GNVQs have been billed as the practical equivalents to GCSEs and A-levels. But the public perception of the vocational courses has continued to lag behind that of more academic options.
Although completion rates for the three types of GNVQ improved last summer, rates have been relatively low. At foundation level, only 41.4 per cent of candidates passed, against 38.5 per cent the previous year. At intermediate level, 55.1 per cent achieved a full award, while 58.4 per cent completed at advanced level.