A new technical baccalaureate for university technical colleges (UTCs) could substitute traditional subjects such as GCSE history for courses such as the history of engineering.
Former education secretary Lord Baker is pressing ahead with the development of the "TechBac" despite concerns from the author of the Government's review of vocational education, Professor Alison Wolf, that it would usher in a new, two-tier system of education.
FE Focus understands that the TechBac, which is being developed by the architect of Labour's diploma system, Sir Mike Tomlinson, is expected to sit alongside the English Baccalaureate, which requires GCSE pupils to achieve grade C or above in English, maths, sciences, a language, and history or geography.
The TechBac requirements could include subjects tailored to suit the specialisms of the 24 proposed UTCs. The humanities requirement could be met with a history qualification focusing on engineering, for instance, and there could be a required technical qualification.
Writing in FE Focus today, Lord Baker said students would learn "German for engineering, not Goethe; the history of invention, not battles".
But Professor Wolf has told MPs that while she was initially "agnostic" about a separate technical certificate, since writing her report she had decided to oppose it because of the risk of creating an inferior alternative to the academic route.
The TechBac also risks creating a further dividing line if it is not available to colleges, where more than 200,000 students a year study for level 2 qualifications after leaving school without five good GCSEs.
Professor Wolf said there was no point in creating a separate TechBac in practice unless it was "a consolation prize" for teenagers who are not thought likely to achieve the five GCSEs required for the EBac.
She said: "That is actually why people would want it, and that is what all the pressure to have it would be (about). If it is just as difficult to achieve as the English Baccalaureate then it is not clear to me what its broad function would be."
An easier certificate would recreate selection at 14, she said. "I think that would be catastrophic. Whereas at the moment, when you have one set of qualifications which have this label but are not the full curriculum, and are clearly not for everybody and you can combine them with lots of other bits, you don't create this thing that really worries me the most, which is to divide at 14."
The working group chaired by Sir Mike has been convened by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which created and promoted the concept of UTCs. Lord Baker persuaded ministers to find pound;180 million to fund the expansion of UTCs in the last budget.
The Department for Education said the TechBac was being developed independently of Government. A spokesman said: "The English Baccalaureate is just one measure of attainment and focuses on a core of academic subjects which top universities say provide an excellent springboard for higher education.
"It is up to heads to decide which subjects they offer and which they make compulsory, beyond those which pupils in all schools must do."