SCHOOLS are using a vocational qualification worth four GCSEs to boost their league-table rankings in a move sanctioned by the Government.
With GCSE results and the first unofficial league tables out next week, it emerged that pupils gaining an intermediate GNVQ need pass only one GCSE to count towards their school's target of five top grade passes.
A pass in any one of 14 intermediate GNVQs, ranging from leisure and tourism to the most popular course, information and communications technology, counts for four GCSE points. The number of pupils taking vocational ICT exams is due to rocket with teaching materials now being marketed by Thomas Telford and Brooke Weston city technology colleges. More than a quarter of secondary schools have bought Thomas Telford's materials, earning the school pound;3 million.
Brooke Weston's website flashes up a page which proclaims: "GNVQ ICT Intermediate - 4 GCSEs equivalent". Top of its list of frequently-asked questions is: "Is it true your course counts as four GCSEs? Yes."
Thomas Telford is the only comprehensive with a 100 per cent record for five good GCSEs, while Brooke Weston says 97 per cent of its students passed the ICT course last year.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, said: "Some heads have told me they planned to run this course because of the impact it would have on the league tables.
"Heads are judged by how they deliver on qualifications. If they hear of a tried and tested method, of course they'll be interested. " John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"I've no doubt the main reason this course has been adopted is because it's excellent, but there is bound to be the suspicion that schools have other motives, and who could blame them?" The issue raises questions about the relative value of GNVQs and GCSEs - recommended teaching time is less than double that of a single GCSE - and prompts concerns that pupils will not get a broad and balanced education.
Ruth Jones, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority spokeswoman, said the intermediate GNVQ was "no easy ride" and said all pupils must sit maths and English GCSE.
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said it was "right that schools get credit" for getting students through the course which involved the same amount of study, and degree of difficulty, as four GCSEs.
The anomaly results from an attempt to lever a qualification, originally designed for post-16 students, into the league-table framework.
The intermediate GNVQ was conceived as an alternative to A-level for students who had done badly at GCSE. It was extended to key stage 4 under the Government's strategy of giving 14-year-olds more vocational options.
Students will continue taking intermediate GNVQs until 2006 when the new vocational GCSEs are introduced - worth two traditional GCSEs.
A spokeswoman for Thomas Telford said that 1,000 schools would be using their materials this September. She admitted "it would help" their pass rates, but said: "It does give students the most wonderful grounding in ICT." Brooke Weston would not comment.