A controversial ICT qualification used by more than half of secondary schools has been too easy, inconsistent and suffered from assessment problems, according to the exams regulator.
Ofqual has now approved a toughened-up version of the OCR National level 2 in ICT that schools began to use in September.
But the new version was only given the green light after two attempts by the OCR exam board to rectify faults in the qualification that the regulator found did not offer enough for bright pupils. It is the fourth most popular 14-19 qualification in English schools.
Ofqual concluded in July 2009 that there were shortcomings in the course - where tasks include sending an email and searching the internet - but it has only made them public now, after satisfying itself that the problems have been resolved.
This delay has resulted in thousands of pupils beginning the original course in September 2009 with their schools unaware of the regulator's misgivings.
"In the majority of units reviewed, we found that there was limited potential for learners at the higher end of the ability range to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do," an Ofqual report said this month.
In a second, separate study also published this month, the regulator found that pupils' work for the qualification did not "demonstrate the same level of knowledge and skills" seen in work for GCSEs in applied ICT.
Schools watchdog Ofsted had already described the OCR National level 2 in ICT as being of "doubtful value". Now the OCR board has had to reduce the official number of hours it says are needed to teach units in the course. It means pupils have to complete more units and cover more content to achieve the qualification than before.
Critics, who claim the qualification is "highly questionable" and "pseudo vocational", have long suspected that the main reason for its huge surge in popularity is its ability to boost schools' league table positions for less actual teaching time than the "equivalent" GCSEs.
Ofqual found "inconsistencies in the guided learning hours and comparability of demand across units" in the qualification.
"As a consequence, there was considerable variation in the amount of work and level of skill required to complete the different units, which significantly undermined the comparability of different routes through the qualification," the regulator said.
It also uncovered "inconsistencies in assessor marking, which in turn revealed issues with the effectiveness of the moderation process". In some of the assessment criteria the requirements for a "merit" grade were more demanding than a supposedly tougher "distinction".
OCR submitted proposed changes to Ofqual in April, it has now emerged. But the regulator found they "had not gone far enough to ensure that the qualifications had options that are comparable in terms of the nature and volume of work required and the level of intellectual demand".
The board then reduced the number of hours it says are needed to teach each unit by a third, allowing the course's accreditation in time for September 2010.
An OCR spokesperson said it was a "groundbreaking" and "stretching" qualification with "enormous" support from teachers and pupils that had been made "even more robust".