New figures out this week show that GNVQ entries have fallen in two of the three categories, foundation and intermediate, by 14 per cent. Only the advanced-level GNVQ registered an increase. Overall there were 92,000 candidates this year, 12,000 down on 1997.
Meanwhile numbers completing GNVQs have reached a plateau with only 1. 7 per cent more candidates staying the course. Last year saw a 10 per cent rise. Less than half the people taking the qualification complete it within two years.
The Joint Council of National Vocational Awarding Bodies, which released the results yesterday, welcomed the increase in completion rates, but others believe it may be due in part to a change of publication date.
GNVQ results were previously published in August, when they were overshadowed by A-level results. From this year, the results will be published in November although completion rates are still calculated for candidates finishing before August 1.
Martin Cross, chair of the joint council, said: "We have reached a plateau partly because a new model GNVQ is being piloted for introduction in September 2000 and new centres are reluctant to join us now if they may have to make changes later.
"At foundation and intermediate level, centres are now entering candidates who are better able to cope with the demands of GNVQ. We may have fewer entrants but they are more likely to complete ."
The popularity of advanced GNVQ, a two-year course equivalent to two A-levels, increased with 7 per cent more entries this year.
But where there is a more academic alternative, GNVQs are still struggling. While the numbers taking advanced-level GNVQ in business studies increased from 28,415 to 29,467, the equivalent A- level leapt more than 10 per cent to 37,000 this year.
Engineering and information technology had twice as many candidates completing advanced level courses, but the numbers are tiny compared to A-level courses.
Mr Cross believes GNVQ demands a level of commitment which will not appeal to everyone. He said: "Students give A-levels one-third of their time - with a GNVQ it is a total commitment which has an impact on the number of candidates. "
Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's centre for education and employment, said: "GNVQ was a bold venture which now seems to have reached a plateau. It needs a stronger identity because it is not clear whether it is supposed to be an alternative to A-level as a route to university or as a way in to the workplace."
Completion rates, although up on last year, still give cause for concern. At foundation level - equivalent to four GCSE passes at grades D-G - the completion rate increased but was still only 38.5 per cent, up from 32. 6 last year.
The completion rates were higher at intermediate level, equivalent to four GCSE passes at grades A*-C, with 50.1 getting a full award while 51.6 per cent completed at advanced level.