By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
A-levels will begin vying with a host of other qualifications in this year's school league tables in England.
Skilled business: now qualifications get recognition
A new system of "equivalence" is being piloted that will see certificates in floristry or welding ranked alongside the higher grades in A-levels.
A car repair diploma will be worth far more points than a grade A in a physics A-level: 420 compared with 270.
Colleges say this will more fairly reflect their work. Independent schools say it devalues A-levels.
Last year the Department for Education and Skills included a wider range of qualifications in the GCSE-level school tables.
Following that, it now plans a pilot to test the inclusion of Level 3 qualifications - as advanced studies are known - in the post-16 tables "on a basis of equivalence to A-level".
This will involve all qualifications it has approved for the use of pupils in maintained schools, learners, and further and work-based education and training, under the age of 19 in England.
The equivalences in the new system have been proposed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
It has assigned 270 points to an A-level at grade A, ranging down to 150 points for a grade E (the pass grade).
A National Vocational Qualification in wood machining is worth 576 points.
An Advanced National Certificate in floristry from City and Guilds is assigned 263 points.
The course combines practical work in funeral and wedding flowers and flower arranging, with theoretical aspects such as business procedures.
Assessment is by ongoing assignments, theoretical tasks, tests and a practical assessment, with a short-answer exam at the end.
A C&G Certificate in welding and fabrication (part 2) counts for 420 points, as do Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) diplomas in vehicle body and paint operations or maintenance and repair.
IMI says its qualifications cover the advanced technical requirements for today's motor industry and would suit those going on to higher education.
One practical effect is that the standing of many further education colleges in the league tables is likely to rise. The Association of Colleges is very pleased.
Its director of learning and quality, Maggie Scott, said: "We set out a strong case to show how standard league tables are virtually meaningless for those general further education colleges with mixed provision, as they took into account only a small part of their learning programme."
But when the 2004 tables were published at the start of this year, the Independent Schools Council denounced the similar changes to GCSE equivalences.
"The new points score employed for 2004 results accords equivalent values to qualifications in cake decoration, pattern cutting and wired sugar flowers as to GCSEs in maths, English, science and modern languages," it said then.
"This is absurd."
Its view has not altered.
Spokesman Steven King said: "While we appreciate the value of vocational qualifications, there can be no equivalence between a vocational qualification in, for instance, woodwork and an A-level in physics."
Dr King said the government was in danger of undermining what it itself called the "gold standard" of A-levels by such an approach.
He said universities would not regard a vocational qualification as equivalent to several A-levels.
But exam board Edexcel says many of the 100,000 students achieving its BTec Nationals this summer - equivalent to one, two or three A-levels - will continue into higher education.
And from the 64,000 who completed their Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) this summer, more than 43% would continue onto the final year of a first degree course and nearly 30% would go into employment.
It says just 3.9% of HND holders are believed to be unemployed, compared with 6.6% of first degree holders.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said the intention of including a wider range of qualifications in the tables was that institutions should not face disincentives in offering "a full range of opportunities tailored to individual learning needs".
"The inclusion of all approved qualifications offers parity of esteem to vocational qualifications," she said.
The 2005 school achievement and attainment tables, as they are officially known, are due to be published in January 2006.