Government reforms in England and Wales will result in second-rate education and training for most 16-year-olds compared with what their counterparts in Scotland receive, according to leading academics.
Four top researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the London University Institute of Education are to scrutinise colleges, school sixth forms and the workplace to assess the different reforms planned north and south of the border.
Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, backed a three-track qualification system based on A-levels, general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications in his review of 16-19 education. But in Scotland, the Government's review published in the report Higher Still abolishes separate tracks.
Sweden is the only other European country to have a unified system like Scotland's, rather than a national framework similar to that being pursued in England and Wales.
The researchers have launched the unified learning project, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council. They say valuable lessons can be drawn by comparing the two models which will help design a curriculum for the next century bridging the academic and vocational divide.
But they fear that the stark differences between the two may end up hampering the development of a framework with the flexibility to suit the whole country. Some say the Government will be forced to go back to the drawing board and redesign the entire curriculum along Scottish lines before the end of the century.
Michael Young, leading the team south of the border, said: "The plans for us and Scotland are pulling in opposing directions." There was a basic flaw in the Dearing plan, reflecting the Government's obsessions with the A-level gold standard and failure to learn from Scotland.
"The idea of dividing people into courses which are gateways to higher education and to work is not very clever. We need to take lifelong learning seriously, and the idea of a unified model in Higher Still offers that possibility."
Kathy Howieson, a principal researcher for the Edinburgh University team, said the aim of the project was to take an objective view of both schemes and recommend the best post-16 model. But the Dearing proposals were still "a step backwards", she said.
"There is a feeling that Scotland is ahead of the game. Dearing may lead to a unified system but the sort of issues the English are debating have been dealt with up here. We are now at the stage of implementing what he hopes for. "