GOVERNMENT plans to overhaul 14 to 19 education are in disarray after ministers conceded that vocational GCSEs - heralded as the new dawn of job-related learning - are too academic.
The qualification was introduced as the cure for the "British disease" of neglecting vocational and technical education.
Last year, the then education secretary David Blunkett said: "New vocational GCSEs and A-levels will raise the standards and status of vocational study and training, and draw together the worlds of education and work in ways that have never before been achieved."
GCSEs in vocational subjects are at the heart of the Government's Green Paper, described as a "crucial rung in the coherent ladder of vocational learning".
The qualifications, which will be taught from September, were supposed to replace foundation, intermediate and part one General National Vocational Qualifications.
But ministers have now been forced into an embarrassing U-turn in the face of overwhelming warnings that the new qualifications are too academic and will leave a whole swathe of students with no suitable courses.
The foundation and intermediate GNVQ qualifications, which were to be dropped, will now be retained until "suitable alternatives are available".
Many of the vocational GCSE and GNVQ subjects overlap. Pupils will now have to choose between a GCSE in leisure and tourism or a GNVQ in leisure and tourism.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"This illustrates the confusion and lack of clear direction in devising vocational qualifications which both suit the learner and are acceptable to employers and universities."
Judith Norrington, from the Association of Colleges, said the U-turn was proof that GCSEs in vocational subjects were closer to academic GCSEs than to work-related learning.
GCSEs in vocational subjects are the equivalent of two academic GCSEs and are graded on the A to G scale. However, intermediate GNVQs are worth four GCSEs. Some schools, such as Thomas Telford, the country's top-performing comprehensive, have admitted that their league tables positions have been boosted by GNVQs.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, said this could be why ministers had withdrawn plans to drop intermediate GNVQs.
"The Government has got into an incredible muddle. GNVQs were devised without any regard to employers and as a way of occupying the less brainy. Vocational GCSEs seem to be in the direct line of succession but are not worth as many GCSEs.
"The Government is opting out by keeping both and talking about diversity but ignoring quality," he said.
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "The Government has postponed the withdrawal of foundation and intermediate GNVQs to cater for post 16-students. New GCSEs will still replace part one GNVQs. The overall objective remains to build an excellent system of vocational and technical education."
THE WAY THEY WORK
* Pupils will sit exams in the first GCSEs in vocational subjects in 2004.
* The qualifications are available at key stage 4 and post-16.
* They are made up of three units. Exams count for a third of the marks and coursework two-thirds.
* Schools and colleges are advised to double the amount of study time that is allowed for academic GCSEs.
* Eight subjects are available from September - information and communication technology, science, engineering, manufacturing, art and design, business, health and social care and leisure and tourism.
* Work is under way to extend the range of subjects available.