The intermediate General National Vocational Qualification, which was revamped in 2000, attracted 66,230 entries, up more than a third on last year.
GNVQs have traditionally been taken after the age of 16 but many schools are increasingly drawn to the qualification, available in 14 subjects including leisure and tourism, and engineering, for younger pupils.
Some have suggested that the qualification has become popular because it helps to boost schools' overall results. As an intermediate GNVQ pass is worth four Cs, pupils who get one invariably hit the target of 5 Cs or better.
Thomas Telford technology college, Shropshire, the first comprehensive to get all pupils through five or more A* to C grades, admitted that its "perfect" score in 2000 was down to success at intermediate GNVQ.
As The TES revealed last month, ministers have now withdrawn plans to axe the intermediate GNVQ when vocational GCSEs are introduced in September. It will be retained until "a suitable alternative is available".
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Schools have been attracted to this, partly because it is a good course and partly because it contributes to performance table positions."
Vocational qualifications were once again clearly split into male and female camps. Just four girls nationwide took the intermediate GNVQ in construction.
Information technology was by far the most popular subject at intermediate GNVQ and Part One GNVQ, which is worth two GCSEs. GCSE information technology entries also increased. But the subject that saw the biggest increase in popularity at GCSE was drama, which drew 7 per cent more entries than last year. Physical education and music also went up.
The effects of allowing limited numbers of pupils to opt out of national curriculum subjects to follow job-related courses hit academic subjects.
GCSEs in French and German attracted 17,000 fewer entries, although more young people decided to take Spanish. Design and technology entries also dropped by about 3,000. The decline does not bode well for those subjects which will no longer be compulsory at key stage 4, under Government Green Paper proposals to overhaul 14 to 19 education.
Some schools are jumping the gun and already treating languages and design and technology as optional subjects from 14.
Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning, said that she was disappointed but not surprised at the drop in popularity of French and German at GCSE.
GNVQ IS JUST THE JOB
MOST POPULAR INTERMEDIATE GNVQs (with number of entries)
Information technology 22,734
Leisure and tourism 9,691
Health and social care 8,566
Art and design 5,082