Vocational qualifications that tens of thousands of pupils take every year will eventually become part of the new work-related diploma courses - and less popular courses will disappear, ministers said this week.
The Government has also backed down on a promise to make the International Baccalaureate (IB) available in all areas of England. And in a move that has angered some teachers, the Advanced Extension Award (AEA) will also be abolished.
The proposals are part of a government paper on the future of 14-19 qualifications that sets out plans to slim down the number of courses on offer - likened by ministers to an "alphabet soup".
The vocational qualifications Btec, City and Guilds awards and OCR Nationals are likely to be subsumed into the diplomas eventually, although their brands could exist as modules within those qualifications. Applied A-levels, which contain work-related elements, are also to be scrapped in 2013.
But exam boards that offer the courses said they welcomed the decision not to take this action immediately, as they had feared. In time, they plan to offer almost all publicly funded qualifications as either GCSEA-levels, diplomas, apprenticeships or as part of a new foundation tier of learning.
The first, more academic, route will also include the rival qualifications of the IB and the Cambridge Pre-U. About two-thirds of more than 6,000 qualifications on offer have fewer than 100 students taking them, said ministers. Many of these will now be "stripped out".
In future, any qualification will have to show that it caters for pupils' needs in a way that no other GCSE, A-level, diploma, apprenticeship or foundation course does to qualify for government funding. A new body, the Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications, which consists of higher education representatives, employers and teachers, will take over from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in advising ministers on funding qualifications.
Jim Knight, schools minister, was asked about the future of Btecs, City and Guilds courses and OCR Nationals. He said: "If there are individual qualifications within these that continue to perform a useful function for learners and employers, they will carry on being funded until they can successfully be absorbed within the GCSE and A-level, diploma and apprenticeship offer."
In the short term, popular Btecs, City and Guilds and OCR Nationals are likely to continue as standalone courses until the next government review of 14-19 education in 2013.
Edexcel, which owns the Btec brand, welcomed this. Since diplomas were announced in 2005, there have been fears in some schools and colleges that popular rival courses, such as Btecs, might be axed quickly. This will not happen.
Greg Watson, chief executive of OCR, said: "The Government has listened to education professionals, and OCR welcomes the commitment that there will be an orderly transition that ensures that good courses and qualifications are not removed without a proper case having been made."
However, the AEA will be taken for the last time next year, despite the fact that the numbers taking it have grown by 64 per cent - from 6,841 candidates when it was introduced in 2002 to 11,251 last year.
The Government said the AEA was unnecessary now that A-levels were being reformed to feature more "stretch and challenge" and a new A-star grade from September.
An extended project, which will be offered alongside A-levels and will be a compulsory part of the diploma, also undermined the case for the AEA, Mr Knight said. It replaced the old S-level, which itself superseded the old scholarship paper, designed for Oxbridge entry and introduced in the 1950s.
The AEA's demise means that for the first time in 50 years there will be no elite exam specifically for academic high-flyers.
This appears to be a change of position from five weeks ago, when the Department for Children, Schools and Families told The TES that it had no plans to axe the AEA.
Adrian Barlow, a former chair of examiners for English at the OCR board, who developed the first advanced extension award paper in that subject, said: "I am disappointed. I am not, myself, convinced that the new A-levels are going to offer the sort of stretch and challenge which the AEAs have offered."
Applied A-levels are likely to find fewer defenders.
The decision not to force every local authority to offer the IB reverses a pledge made by Tony Blair in 2006. It comes after a group of employers, university representatives and educationists set up to advise ministers on 14-19 reform said this would conflict with plans to offer the diploma in academic subjects from 2011.
Of England's 150 local education authorities, 124 will have at least one school teaching the IB by 2010, a spokesman said.
Conor Ryan, former education adviser to Mr Blair, said ministers should be doing more to support schools' efforts to sign up to the IB.
John Guy, principal of Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire, said: "I would support the Government saying qualifications should not simply go on being funded because they always have been. However, it might be that a minority-interest course is valued highly in one local area. If this were the case, I would have concerns about it being removed."
He said that while he supported the abolition of the AEA, the Government should not scrap all applied A-levels. Some 200 of his college's students take the single applied A-level, alongside academic courses, and this route would not be catered for by diplomas.
COURSES THAT HAVE OVERRUN THEIR TIME?
Some of the unpopular qualifications taken last year:
- Professional competence in national passenger transport certificate
OCR level 3: 0 passes
- Certificate for parking attendants
City and Guilds level 2: 0 passes
- Award in body massage
Edexcel level 3 Btec: 1 pass
- Diploma in nail art
ITEC level 2: 1 pass
- Cash and valuables in transit
NOCN level 2 award: 1 pass
SHOPPING AROUND GETS YOU THE BEST DEAL ON A-LEVEL FEES
New A-level exams offered by the Edexcel exam board are 35 per cent more expensive than those from one of its rival boards, the Government's exams regulator said today.
Schools and colleges are to be charged an average of pound;90.52 by Edexcel from September, compared with pound;73.08 for OCR and pound;67.20 for AQA. Comparisons show design and technology will cost pound;148.20 with Edexcel but pound;67.20 at AQA.
Edexcel, the only privatised awarding body, also had the highest prices for the 22 A-level courses that all three boards offer.
But A-level fees for all boards are being reduced for courses beginning in September because the qualification is being cut back from six to four modules. Edexcel's are being cut by 1 per cent, compared with 10 per cent for AQA.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) said schools and colleges "should consider these fee differentials ... when deciding which awarding bodies to use". But it added that boards generally did not make profits from A-levels.
In a separate report, consultants for the QCA said there was little difference on GCSE prices, but late-entry fees were up to 53 per cent higher for Edexcel compared with AQA.
Edexcel said in a statement: "We are aware of the growing cost of examinations ... but equally aware that schools do not choose specifications based on price but on the quality of the specification and the support offered."
MOST LIKELY COURSE OF VOCATIONAL ROUTES
- Vocational qualifications with fewer than 100 candidates likely to be scrapped.
- Move to a new credit-based system for all 14-19 qualifications by 2013.
- Local authorities no longer required to offer International Baccalaureate by 2010.
- Advanced Extension Awards to be scrapped by next year.
- Applied A-levels to be phased out.