Vocational ict qualifications that schools use to climb league tables are of "doubtful value", teach pupils what they already know, neglect essential skills and are causing a sharp decline in the subject post-16, Ofsted warned this week.
The watchdog is calling on ministers to evaluate the worth of two courses that it notes count as four good GCSEs to schools, but take only half the time to teach.
Its damning report says they do not cover the full key stage 4 ICT national curriculum and "fail to develop the vital skills for the UK economy".
Ofsted said the qualifications repeat large parts of KS3 and allow pupils to gain passes without understanding the work they have done. It is also clear about why schools are opting for them.
"Over the past decade, schools have moved away from GCSE ICT, which is perceived to be more difficult, to take on vocational courses," the report says. "Increasingly, the schools have turned to qualifications that are seen to be less demanding. A proper evaluation of the challenge posed is necessary."
The intermediate GNVQ in ICT became hugely popular at the start of the decade when schools found that it counted as four top-grade GCSEs in league tables, despite only requiring the teaching time of a single maths GCSE.
It was phased out in 2006, but Edexcel stepped in with its diploma in digital applications, and OCR with the national level 2 in ICT, to cater for a now booming market.
The report does not name them, but these are the two qualifications Ofsted is understood to be concerned about, particularly the latter.
In 2007, The TES revealed that consultants from the Government's national strategies had found the standards required for a pass in the OCR qualification were generally equivalent to those to be expected of an average 11-year-old.
Ofsted said the modular, coursework-based qualifications have engaged and motivated pupils, but are limiting the achievements of brighter students. They are also poor preparation for A-levels and are contributing to a fall in the numbers studying computing post-16: there were 25 per cent fewer A- level ICT entries in 2007 compared with 2004.
Ofsted's report, The Importance of ICT, also found assessment was the weakest part of ICT teaching. It found that this was inadequate in a fifth of schools.
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesperson said: "The content and quality of qualifications is for Ofqual to decide on. We would expect that Ofqual monitor and review qualifications to make sure the system remains fair for all students."