Science is likely to become the first academic subject to get its own diploma. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is investigating a broad science qualification to address concerns that vocational courses in the subject are "incoherent".
It is expected to become the 15th of the new range of diplomas, the first of which will be launched in 2008 and which are intended to provide alternatives to GCSEs and A-levels for 14 to 19-year-olds.
The move comes amid repeated concerns about the effect on Britain's science base of falling numbers studying physics and, to a lesser extent, chemistry A-levels.
This year has seen the launch of new double science GCSEs, which include sections on topical science issues. They are designed to capture the interest of pupils who have been turned off by more traditional courses.
However, some are still unhappy with vocational science exams. Applied science GCSEs have come under fire for a complicated assessment regime, and for attracting mainly lower-ability students.
Applied science A-levels have attracted tiny numbers of candidates: this year's applied AS double award managed only 659 entries.
Philip Wright and Sarah Jones, of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries, submitted a paper to the QCA arguing for the diploma. They wrote: "It would provide a qualification that is an exciting, stretching and relevant programme of learning for young people who may not have considered traditional science courses."
The introduction of a diploma in an academic subject may help the cause of the new qualification, which ministers have described as the most important education reforms going on anywhere in the world. The QCA, and the employers who have designed them, are desperate to convince schools that the new courses can cater for the needs of academic high-flyers, as well as the disaffected.