Schools lose sleep over ships and sheep
Farming and sailing GCSEs will be scrapped under plans being considered by the Government's exam advisers.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is expected to recommend that many work-related exams be dropped, following a review aimed at streamlining the system.
Ministers want vocational courses to replace the academic qualifications. But the proposal has provoked protests from schools, who fear bright students will not opt for practical subjects without the kudos of a GCSE.
Around 600 students take farming or "agriculture and horticulture" GCSEs each year while 130 sit "nautical studies". Both courses are offered by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board.
Supporters of the agriculture course argue that it enriches the whole curriculum and is a starting point for debates about factory farming, genetically-modified foods and vegetarianism.
Simon Dalby-Ball, head of Nunnykirk Centre for Dyslexia in Northumberland, said: "If agriculture was no longer a GCSE subject pupils, or their parents, would not opt to do it and schools would come under pressure to drop it.
"The Government is trying to narrow the curriculum and make it less interesting."
Sue Hester, who teaches agriculture at West Somerset community college, said:
"We value this GCSE because it is a lovely academic course for our brightest students. Scrapping it would put the future of many schools' farm units in jeopardy."
Anthony Bosanquet, president of the Country Landowners' Association said: "Our population is becoming increasingly urban and it is vital that young people understand rural issues and know where their food comes from and how it is produced."
The London Nautical School, a comprehensive established to train merchant sailors, is particularly concerned about the loss of the nautical studies GCSE.
The school is unique in that all its pupils study nautical studies from 11 to 14 and many go on to take the threatened GCSE course.
Inspectors have praised the course for its academic rigour and its application of knowledge to solve practical problems. It includes the study of meteorology, the theory of flotation and stability as well as practical seamanship.
Stephen Craddock, head of nautical studies at the school, said: "This syllabus is unique - it is the only subject currently available which relates to seamanship and navigation on the sea.
"Its loss would be a tragedy at a time when the British maritime industry is healthier than it has been for years and the marine leisure industry is expanding. We have young men leaving school at 16 and being inundated with job offers."
However, ministers insist that subjects such as agriculture are best addressed through vocational courses.
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks said last week: "There are a wide range of vocationally-related qualifications in agriculture and horticulture. We shall ensure that there continues to be an appropriate range of such qualifications in the future."
A spokesman for the QCA said: "No decision has been made about any of the GCSE syllabuses."