By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
The secondary school tables "no longer have any value whatever in reporting on meaningful achievement in key academic subjects or serious vocational studies".
Pastry cutting: valuable qualification or "absurd" in school tables?
On the face of it, this broadside from the Independent Schools Council seems a bit odd, given that many of its member schools are held up as the best in England for helping their students make progress.
Independent schools dominate the new "value added" table showing how children's attainment has increased from the end of their primary schooling to when they took their GCSE or equivalent exams last year.
But there's the rub: the other innovation in this year's "GCSE" data from the Department for Education and Skills - the incorporation of many more "equivalent" qualifications.
In an effort to recognise youngsters' achievements in vocational studies, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has approved a long list, assigning them points "equivalences".
GCSEs themselves have been tweaked so that the points awarded are weighted differently, boosting the value of lower grades.
And from now on, anyone who achieves a distinction in the ABC Certificate in cake decoration, for example, will get 55 points, compared to 52 for an A-grade GCSE.
This is what has prompted the derision of the Independent Schools Council.
"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.
"This is absurd.
"Not only can these tables not be compared with any previous published data about schools; they no longer tell parents anything valuable about the quality of a school's academic or vocational programme."
"This is not even a case of trying to compare apples and pears: it is comparing apples with candy floss."
The "cake decoration" certificate has become something of a symbol of the whole debate.
On Wednesday the Department for Education and Skills felt moved to issue a statement in response to a newspaper article.
"We'd just like to clarify that there were no candidates included in this year's tables who took the course referred to" [the ABC in cake decorating].
A spokeswoman did later confirm that the ABC was still on the approved list.
The School Standards Minister, Stephen Twigg, said: "To claim that this is some kind of 'dumbing down' is old-fashioned educational snobbery."
He said vocational courses - in such things as engineering and applied sciences - were being included "because the world has moved on".
Problems had been predicted by the QCA.
"Given the high profile of schools' performance outcomes and national targets, ministers will be sensitive to the media response," its report said.
"It will be important to emphasise the inclusiveness of the new performance indicators...".
Cue Mr Twigg: "This is a significant step forward in recognising the achievements of all pupils and of the importance of flexible and vocational routes of learning."
The Liberal Democrats pointed out - as they regularly do when the final exam results are published - the proportion of youngsters with good GCSEs in the "core" subjects of English, maths and science.
This year it was "unchanged at a shocking 39%", they said.
"It is high time we abandoned meaningless league tables and gave young people, employers and universities the information they need."
The government shows no intention of changing tack, however.
And - talking of employers and universities - brace yourself: next year, A-levels will also be reported using QCA equivalences.
This cannot happen too soon for further education colleges, which have long complained that many of their students' achievements go unrecognised in the tables because of the way advanced level points are calculated.
They "seriously mislead students and parents and discriminate against those further education colleges with mixed vocational and academic provision", said the Association of Colleges.
In its report on the issue, the QCA noted that during its consultation, people "expressed concerns about ill-informed press comment on equivalence", using the fact that a maths A-level and a Level 2 bakery diploma had the same points total "to devalue the 'worth' of vocational qualifications".
It said it would be up to the inspectorates - Ofsted and the ALI - "to monitor whether the qualifications on offer in any centre are genuinely suited to that cohort and are not skewed to gain points".
There is some evidence that this is what has happened at "GCSE" level.
A paper prepared by a retired head teacher, David Brown, analysed schools' results in the 2003 tables, focusing on the remarkable successes of those on the "most improved" list issued by the government.
All but one of the schools in the top 10 entered their pupils for GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications).
As we have reported previously these have boomed in popularity in recent years, sustaining the small increase in "GCSE equivalent" grades nationally.
One school, for example, reported that the weekly lesson time taken up by GCSE English and GNVQ information technology was the same: four hours, with three hours for GCSE maths.
Of the students taking them, 25% gained a grade C or above in English and 18% in maths - and 80% in the GNVQ.
Either the GNVQ was much easier than the maths GCSE or its teachers were much better, he concluded.
But - "incredibly" - the GNVQ is worth the equivalent of four higher-grade GCSEs.
"So making the four hours per week studying IT thirteen times as effective in boosting the school's league table position as the three hours spent studying maths," he told BBC News.
"If that isn't going to distort the curriculum in a market, I don't know what is."