New vocational elements for the Welsh baccalaureate could force teenagers on to set career paths at just 14, an exams chief has warned.
Gareth Pierce, chief executive of the WJEC, spoke out as the exam board teamed up with England's Edexcel to marry the Welsh baccalaureate qualification with the controversial English diplomas.
It is the first time Welsh and English exam boards have joined forces, with the WJEC cherry-picking the vocational element of the diploma for the Welsh bac. But there are fears that 14-year-olds could be pushed into choosing one particular vocational path by the 14-19 networks delivering the qualification.
Warning of a risk over teenage career paths, Mr Pierce said: "I do think we need to look at the policy over the next few years."
He said pupils needed to be able to "mix and match" vocational elements to give them more choice.
Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, agreed with Mr Pierce and said: "I welcome the new elements but we mustn't trap youngsters into too early a decision with career paths."
Leighton Jenkins of CBI Wales said that while employer-led, sector- specific learning is in great demand, good careers advice is vital.
However, Welsh education minister Jane Hutt said the bac allows flexibility, and personal tutors will help learners make options choices.
The Welsh bac is made up of two parts: the core, with the four components of key skills, Wales, Europe and the world, work-related education, and personal and social education; and options, which includes GCSEs, A-levels and NVQs.
It is currently available at intermediate (grades A*-C at GCSE) and advanced levels (A-level). Ms Hutt announced this month it will be rolled out at foundation level
(D-G at GCSE) and at key stage 4 from September 2009.
The new English diplomas, being rolled out from this September, combine academic and vocational learning and are seen by the Westminster Government as key to addressing the skills agenda.
But they have been widely criticised by academics, who fear they will undermine educational standards and fail to properly prepare teenagers for university or work.
There are also fears that students will be able to gain the diploma without relevant work experience.
Through the employer-endorsed Principal Learning (PL) section, pupils learn about a particular work sector as well as employment-relevant skills.
It is this part of the diploma which is being cherry-picked by the WJEC for Welsh bac students, to run alongside key skills. The WJEC will have a year to monitor how the diploma works in England before introducing the first three PL qualifications in 2009.
In England, the emphasis will be on testing, while in Wales it will be portfolio-led to showcase skills. Mr Pierce said the 14-19 networks would need to make sure they had the right teaching staff in place.
The success of the Welsh bac will start to be known soon, as the first intake graduates from university.
Applied learning is all the rage now
Has "vocational" become a dirty word in Welsh political circles? One academic told the TES Cymru the fashion now is to refer to anything vocational as "applied learning".
Publicly, the Assembly government claims the word vocational is still in use, citing last month's Vocational Qualifications Day. But the term "applied learning" is being used in the context of the Principal Learning qualifications of the Welsh bac to refer to the vocational elements.
Critics say the subtle language change is being enforced to improve the image of these qualifications.
But Dr Phil Dixon, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said: "We need to do more than just change the language to make vocational and academic qualifications seem equal."