Flagship "vocational A-levels" taken by one-in-five 18-year-olds lack purpose, fail to fulfil their goals and need urgent reform, according to a stinging report published today.
The first full study of General National Vocational Qualifications claims that they offer teenagers few options and do nothing to redress shortages of people with scientific or technical knowledge.
Professor Alison Wolf, of the Institute of Education, said GNVQs effectively offered just four subjects and failed to match the academic status of A-levels or to provide a real route to a job for school leavers. They also failed to attract more young people into vocational education, provided few links with employment, had high drop out rates and offered nothing to adults.
Competition between schools and colleges has squeezed out most of the 15 subjects on offer, she said, leaving three-quarters of GNVQs concentrated in just four subjects - business, health and social care, art and design, and leisure and tourism.
Only a fifth of students enrolling on courses went on to higher education, and few who found a job went on to work in a related field.
Professor Wolf said an immediate review was needed. "We want to think much more clearly about what we're trying to achieve," she said.
The report poses problems for Labour, which promised a review of NVQs, many of which have not been taken up, before the election. But the party has stayed silent on the question of GNVQ reform.
The study found essential science GNVQs were offered by only a few schools and colleges. Of the 75 centres in the survey hoping to offer advanced GNVQs in 1997, seven offered manufacturing, 10 hotel and catering courses, 19 offered science and just eight offered construction.
Professor Wolf said: "The net result of this is a further straying away from science and technology. We are replicating the problems we already have with A-levels.
"It's going to take a very long time before even one-quarter of GNVQ students are doing anything related to science and technology."
There were few links between GNVQs and the more work-based National Vocational Qualifications, which students have shown little interest in taking up.
Professor Wolf said it was a "scandal" the last government had not properly assessed the qualifications.She attacked the system for concentrating on the minority of students going into higher education, while failing to provide broad-based vocational education for those wanting work. She called for action to provide a coherent system of qualifications for 16-19 year olds.
"It's right that GNVQs have proved to be something that (leads to) higher education. but it's not clear I that it's been understood that the majority of people who start GNVQs don't go to university."
The study firmly placed GNVQs as a second best after A-levels and Professor Wolf said: "They've become the sub-A-level option."
Professor Wolf, who carried out the research for the Further Education Development Agency and the Nuffield Foundation, said attention should focus on students not aiming for university. She praised intermediate GNVQs, pitched at the level of GCSEs, as a valuable alternative to re-sits, which have been attacked as inappropriate for many students.
GNVQs were proposed in 1991 as a preparation for employment and a route to higher education, of equal standing with A-levels but related to the more specific NVQs.
The role of GNVQs as one of the three key pathways for teenagers was reinforced in Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 education - but students and teachers have remained loyal to qualifications such as the BTEC national diplomas.