The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has told Education Secretary Gillian Shephard it is opposed to a national sub-GCSE certificate. However, Nick Tate, SCAA's chief executive, told a London conference on the future of the GCSE last week: "Students' special educational needs are so wide-ranging that different kinds of accreditation are needed. We shall be reviewing the relevant qualifications and quality assurance arrangements of the bodies which award them."
SCAA has commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research to look at the current practice in accrediting the small steps of attainment made by these students at key stage 4.
Its interim report recommends providing wide-ranging qualifications to assess pupils who attain below grade G at GCSE or below the General National Vocational Qualification foundation level, and it says it is against a national sub-GCSE certificate. The authority will publish a full report in September.
Margaret Hutchinson, an assistant chief executive with the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB), organisers of the conference, said there was a great demand for qualifications below GCSE grade G.
If, as Dr Tate says, there should be a wide choice of qualifications for pupils with special needs, the exam market appears to be fulfilling that requirement already.
The NEAB turned its own Northern Partnership for Records of Achievement scheme into a national qualification two years ago, after it was developed with local education authorities in 1984.
Its strength is that pupils of all abilities and ages can study for a specially written "unit" of a given GCSE course. For example, low achievers might take an "Introduction to Telephone Skills" unit, and more able pupils can study urban geography, including population density, and map and graph form.
Other exam boards also have qualifications aimed at low attainers. Last year, 36,126 candidates took the Southern Examining Group's "on-demand" achievement tests (without a fixed exam date) and 56,000 pupils passed basic tests.
The tests are aimed at low achievers who need to be able to show employers they have attained a certain level in a subject, even if they have not managed to get a GCSE. But some teachers believe such qualifications have a stigma.
David King, headteacher of the Abbey school for children with moderate learning difficulties in Farnham, Surrey, said a five-school consortium for the City and Guilds Diploma fell through because the heads from the comprehensive schools thought it was a "Mickey Mouse" qualification.
They feared the diploma, which would have been offered for all pupils, not just low attainers, would have creamed off potential GCSE candidates and affected their positions in the school league tables.
In the end, the Abbey decided to offer the diploma alone.