Students combining GCSEs and BTECs at level 2 are likely to earn more than those who take academic courses only, a new study shows, challenging claims that low-level vocational qualifications are a soft option.
Vocational courses at level 2 have attracted increasing criticism as an easy alternative to GCSEs, but the study - commissioned by BTEC parent company Pearson and carried out independently by London Economics - says taking a level 2 BTEC on top of five GCSEs adds 5.9 per cent more to earning power than an all-academic course.
It suggests that, while political debate continues over the value of some vocational courses, employers are willing to pay for staff with the qualifications.
"It is not the case that those with vocational qualifications routinely under-perform those with academic qualifications," the report says.
But London Economics found that other level 2 vocational courses led to a fall in earnings if taken with GCSEs: 3 per cent for City and Guilds and 6 per cent for NVQs.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has suggested that such falls are not because the qualification is itself damaging, but that they reflect the poorer career prospects of the students who tend to select them.
The new report, which has been submitted to the Wolf review of 14-19 vocational education, says the 60 per cent of students with BTEC level 2 who did not achieve five good GCSEs benefited less - although they still earned 13 per cent more than those with no qualifications.
Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at think-tank Civitas, has criticised the increasing adoption of GCSE-equivalent vocational qualifications, arguing that they are used to "babysit weaker pupils who jeopardise A*-C GCSE targets".
She conceded that the quality of BTECs could vary, accepting that many "hands-on" subjects may be valuable while claiming that others, such as science, were just watered-down versions of academic courses.
Ms de Waal said: "If it is not particularly hands-on, and just learning about an area of work rather than actually doing it, that becomes rather spurious.
"If it is just because teachers feel under pressure to put certain students into qualifications where they think they will do better, students are likely to benefit more when they are choosing the course themselves."
She added that the quality of courses such as BTEC IT have been sharply criticised by Ofsted.
The report estimated the lifetime benefit of BTEC level 3 to the individual was between pound;59,000 and pound;92,000, providing some evidence that over-25s forced to pay full fees for the qualification in future may be able to pay back their loans.
For NVQs, the benefit was valued at between pound;15,000 and pound;24,000.