Government attempts to sell the more job-orientated qualifications to 16-year-olds appear to have failed as students are rejecting them as a credible route to university.
Newly-published research reveals a widening gap between those aiming for academic qualifications and those opting for vocational courses. The researchers say the Government-backed initiatives to promote job-related studies are targeted at the wrong age group.
University chiefs, alarmed by the findings, now want campaigns to promote general national vocational qualifications to start in the primary school. Leaving it to the recruitment whims of schools and colleges is not enough, they say.
A national survey of teachers, college principals and 1,300 Year 11 pupils showed that virtually all those planning academic studies were aiming for university, compared with one in four of those opting for the vocational courses.
The findings will embarrass ministers since the GNVQ was launched as a route to either higher education or work. They pinned particular hopes on the new qualification as a way of encouraging a broader ability range into university.
But the views of the overwhelming majority of pupils confirm the worst fears of critics. They see them as a second-rate qualification, citing A-levels as the gold standard and the natural route to a degree.
There is worse, according to the University of Southampton researchers. Nicholas Foskett, research director, said: "It is not so much the perception that A-levels are more likely to facilitate university entrance, but the more serious assumption that vocational qualifications are not a recognised pathway into university."
Four out of 10 pupils interviewed suggested they had "always known" what they were going to do after 16. Half of them had decided "just recently", the researchers found.
The research reveals that a sizeable group had virtually made up their minds about their future by the time they left primary school. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has long held this view but failed to persuade the Government to take it seriously when shaping the national curriculum.
The chief executive of UCAS, Tony Higgins, said: "We welcome this research because it shows the need to promote awareness of HE much earlier. Many chancellors say it should start at primary age."
UCAS and the oil giant BP have launched a joint initiative to promote earlier awareness of different routes to degree courses. It follows an earlier BP initiative on aiming for a college. "There is clear evidence now that GNVQs do get you to university. Unfortunately, there are still people who see vocational courses as being for the dull, sloppy and thick, while academic courses are for the bright and witty."
John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "We should not be surprised at these results.
"We read so much about the primacy of A-levels that a simple message has got through to pupils and parents: 'If you can, then do A-levels; if you can't, then do something else.
"We still need a more general certificate covering the range of students' abilities and needs. Although Sir Ron Dearing's national certificate will take us a little further down the road to parity of esteem, there is still a long way to go."
One in nine pupils were opting for a mix of GNVQs and A-levels. But the majority of these identified the GNVQ as a different academic option and not a broadening into vocational studies.
Colleges must also take a share of the blame for failing to market their own courses early enough, the research shows. They target recruitment campaigns largely at 15 and 16-year-olds.