FE teachers and colleges have criticised coalition plans to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate (TechBac) performance measure before some of the qualifications it will include have even been designed.
From 2014, the government intends to measure how many students at schools and colleges achieve the new TechBac's three elements: a high-quality vocational course, a qualification in maths and an extended project.
The Department for Education said that the new performance measure was aimed at the one in four students in FE who have already achieved good grades in English and maths at GCSE - a pool of around 320,000 teenagers.
But the level 3 maths qualification that students will need for it does not currently exist: the Department has said it will be ready in 2015, and suggested that an AS level in maths could be used to fulfil the criterion in the meantime.
Colleges said they would work with the government to implement its TechBac but warned the timetable was "challenging".
"We fear that the September 2014 timetable for the introduction of this new performance measure may be too tight and are concerned that not all of the three key elements proposed have yet been finalised," said Deborah Ribchester, the Association of Colleges' senior policy manager.
"The Department is still consulting on which vocational courses will count in the league tables and the level 3 maths qualification is still in development."
The Institute for Learning said that FE teachers needed time to prepare for the TechBac. Toni Fazaeli, the IfL's chief executive, said teachers needed to be ready "so that the new baccalaureate properly meets the vision that Professor Alison Wolf set out in her 2011 review of vocational education".
The TechBac is modelled on the GCSE-level English Baccalaureate (EBac), which measures how many students at schools achieve good grades in English, maths, sciences, a language and a humanities subject. Ministers hope that encouraging students to take up rigorous vocational qualifications - with maths and an extended project to test their writing and reasoning skills - will help to bridge the skills gap for technician-level jobs.
"We are being clear to our young people about the skills they need to succeed and get good jobs. We want an education system in which everyone can reach their potential," said FE minister Matthew Hancock. "Our reforms ... will incentivise the development of high-quality courses and incentivise schools and colleges to offer the courses that get young people on in life."
Although no targets or penalties are attached to the EBac measure, schools significantly changed their provision after it was introduced. In 2010 just 22 per cent of students took an EBac-eligible combination of subjects, but last year the figure was 48 per cent.
Peter Roberts, principal of Leeds City College and chairman of the 157 Group, predicted that colleges would react enthusiastically to the TechBac, saying he was confident it offered "a complete package of vocational education, which will prepare our future workforce with professional skills and attributes, and to which many young people will want to aspire".
Employers also endorsed the decision to use a performance measure and not to create a new qualification, although the CBI said its eventual goal was to have vocational A levels.
"Business prefers this approach, rather than creating another new qualification that would struggle for recognition, like the (14-19) diploma did," said Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills. "We hope this will prove to be a staging point towards our ultimate goal of rigorous vocational A levels."
But shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg accused the government of playing "catch-up" after Labour announced its support for a similar baccalaureate last year. "David Cameron and Michael Gove have spent the past three years undermining technical education, damaging the quality of apprenticeships, downgrading the engineering diploma and narrowing the curriculum so skills are sidelined," he said.