Education world says white paper would create a 'second-class qualification'. Warwick Mansell reports
A separate diploma for vocational courses could form the centrepiece of the Government's response to the Tomlinson inquiry into the future of secondary education later this month, The TES has been told.
GCSEs and A-levels would be left intact, leaving youngsters to choose whether to opt for a traditional academic route or the new qualification.
The Government refuses to comment on the details of its white paper in response to Tomlinson, which is due within two weeks. But the move would provoke outrage from many in the education world.
They will argue that the new diploma would be a second-class qualification and perpetuate national snobbery about vocational exams.
One source said: "This would lead to the confirmation of the vocational-academic divide, not its removal.
"Implementing it would result in everything that Tomlinson was trying to avoid."
Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, recommended in October a four-level diploma to absorb all vocational and academic courses, including GCSEs and A-levels, over the next 10 years.
But already, the Prime Minister and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, have said GCSEs and A-levels will not be replaced.
The Government wants to improve vocational courses - a move backed strongly by Sir Mike, who said the number of non-academic qualifications was bewildering.
Introducing a vocational diploma would address this issue, and would also allow the Government to say it was introducing major reform in response to Tomlinson.
But critics say it would be a misguided attempt by ministers to reject aspects of Sir Mike's report that could prove unpopular with the electorate in the run-up to the general election.
The Tomlinson plans - the product of an 18-month review - would constitute the biggest reform of secondary education for more than 50 years.
The white paper, originally scheduled for publication last month, has already been put back to the week after next amid widespread speculation about ministers' nervousness about radical change.
The education world is firmly behind Tomlinson. Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, became the latest leading educationist to argue that ministers should adopt the report in full.
In a letter to Ms Kelly dated December 17, revealed to The TES under the new Freedom of Information Act, Dr Boston wrote: "The potential for a step-change in participation and attainment lies in the integrity of the whole 14-19 programme.
"Any partial implementation of the proposals would, in our view, compromise that integrity."
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said he could not comment on the white paper's contents.