The value given to vocational qualifications in school league tables needs to be "thoroughly reviewed" and downgraded for some courses, academy heads have conceded.
Counting some vocational qualifications as equivalent to four good GCSEs has created a "PR problem" for schools that needs to be addressed, Mike Butler, chair of the Independent Academies Association (IAA), told The TES.
Mr Butler's comments follow sustained criticism of vocational courses amid claims that they carry too much weight and are used by schools to boost league table rankings.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has proposed removing vocational and other non-GCSE qualifications from school league tables because they are less academically demanding.
A series of parliamentary questions tabled earlier this year revealed that academies are significantly more likely than other secondaries to use non-GCSEs.
Ofqual also announced recently that it is to investigate courses, including BTECs and OCR Nationals popular in many state schools. Ministers have also commissioned a wider independent review of 14-19 vocational education.
In a policy statement from the IAA this week, Mr Butler, who is also principal of Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham, said vocational courses should count in performance tables, but conceded that the value given to them may need to be downgraded.
"We are concerned about attempts to belittle the achievements of students who gain BTECs, Diplomas or other vocational qualifications," according to the IAA, which represents principals, finance directors and chairs of governors.
"We recognise there may need to be a reduced tariff for some vocational qualifications in the league tables, but it would be very damaging to students if schools received no credit for such achievements."
Speaking to The TES, Mr Butler added: "When you have one subject that counts for four GCSEs then you are going to have a PR problem. People accept that and understand it.
"I believe there needs to be a thorough review. It's all too easy to take sides in the argument without having a strong evidence base. In most cases I stand by the current equivalent grades, but there are examples where they are too high.
"We very much hold with the idea that we should design a personal curriculum for young people, which might include a mix of academic and vocational courses."
Mr Butler's remarks were welcomed by Anastasia De Waal, deputy director of think-tank Civitas, who has been campaigning for greater transparency about the qualifications offered by academies.
"These are highly significant comments because we know that academies are using vocational qualifications at double the rate of other maintained schools," she said.
"I have had principals tell me that they have doubts about some qualifications, but they have not been prepared to say it on the record. If the Government does take away equivalences, where will that leave academies? This is opening up an incredible can of worms."
Close the gap
Ministers should not stray from the academy programme's original mission to boost achievement in deprived areas, according to the Independent Academies Association.
New academies should retain a commitment to tackling disadvantage and poor attainment, the group said this week. The comments follow a call from Ark, one of the country's largest academy sponsors, for ministers to move their focus back to academies that close the achievement gap for pupils from poor homes.