The TES reports as the Government publishes its slimline curriculum after a Pounds 6 million consultation programme. Schools will be forced to sort pupils into "sheep and goats" because of the way the General National Vocational Qualifications are designed, sources close to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority fear. Their apprehension is shared by parents and employers interviewed by MORI as part of the national curriculum consultations that pupils will be labelled at 14.
There is also concern that pupils who opt entirely for GCSE courses at 14 could find themselves disadvantaged if they switch to GNVQs at 16.
Pilot GNVQ schemes will go ahead next September following the approval of ministers last week. But there are still concerns within SCAA over the content of some proposed courses. Pupils who make the switch at 16 could miss out on some of the most basic studies and face a large burden of extra work in order to catch up.
Three secretaries of state - Gillian Shephard for Education, Michael Portillo for Employment and John Redwood for Wales - gave the go-ahead but called for tighter checks on coursework to ensure parity with GCSEs.
Details of a two-year pilot involving up to 100 schools will be announced later this month. Fundamental disagreements over the testing methods, within the task-force charged with designing the pilot, had threatened to delay the full introduction until as late as 1998.
Many of these are still unresolved, as are key questions about the content of the GNVQ units. But the enormous effort to map GNVQ plans against GCSEs and make sure essential core skills in literacy, numeracy and information technology are covered by all pupils has been largely successful, Sir Ron Dearing, SCAA chairman, told The TES.
He stressed the need for the pilot to iron-out all the problems before a national launch. "We have had so many attempts at vocational education pre 16 since the War that we are determined to get it right this time."
There was, apart from the coming pilot, a wealth of evidence from over 2,000 pupils in schools throughout England and Wales which had carried out trial work on GNVQs for 14 to 16-year-olds over the past two years, he said.
A wider range of options isnow expected within the pilot. Originally only two study areas, business studies and health and social care, were to be included. Pupils will take a GNVQ Part 1, an award in its own right but equal to half a full GNVQ which they could also complete post-16.
But leisure and tourism is expected to be excluded. This gained the blackest marks of all GNVQs in school and college inspectors' reports last week.
A snag over which levels to pitch the content had emerged. The GNVQ is available at three levels: foundation (equivalent to GCSE grade D-G), intermediate (GCSE A-C) and advanced (A-level).
Fourteen-year-olds will be aiming for the foundation or intermediate papers. To make both attractive and to ensure a ladder of continuity, much of the basic material from the intermediate studies has been shifted to the foundation level.
Some SCAA members say that this smacks of the differentiated GCSE papers which lead to pupils being split into sheep and goats. There are further problems for GCSE pupils who opt for GNVQs post-16. Middle-ranking attainers who go for the intermediate level will have to catch up on basics already covered at foundation level. One source commented that "this would inevitably have a backlash on the post-16 vocational studies."