Fewer teenagers are choosing vocational courses despite a government drive to encourage pupils to try non-academic subjects.
Figures from the Department for Education and Skills show the number of under-19s in England taking general national vocational qualifications and NVQs fell by around 9 per cent last year.
A report accompanying the statistics said the drop was offset by similar increases in academic awards. The number of pupils taking GCSE or AS-level exams rose by more than 4 per cent between 200102 and 200203.
The changes come despite Government attempts to encourage schools to offer more vocational courses to 14 to 19-year-olds and to promote "parity of esteem" between vocational and academic courses.
While the popularity of GNVQs has generally declined among secondary students, more schools are encouraging pupils to sit the GNVQ in information and communications technology a year before they take GCSEs.
This approach boosts schools' position in the league tables, because the GNVQ counts as four GCSE passes at grades A* to C.
The DfES study said that growing take-up of the ICT exam appeared to be the main reason why the number of 15-year-olds taking an intermediate GNVQ tripled from 11,000 to 33,000 last year.
A government spokesman said that the statistics did not give a full picture of the vocational courses pupils were studying because they did not include apprenticeships.
"The declining numbers doing NVQs underlines the effectiveness of the Learning and Skills Council, because the focus is being shifted from short NVQ courses to broader forms of work-based learning," he said.
But Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the figures showed that vocational courses were still treated as second-class. "Once again this proves that... 14 to 19 education needs major reform," he said.
"The bias continues to be on more traditional academic subjects over vocational qualifications."
Vocational Qualifications In The UK: 200203 is at www.dfes.gov.uk