By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
Schools are casting about for alternative qualifications to replace those which in many cases have brought a dramatic rise in their results.
Have vocational qualifications been pursued for the right reasons?
GNVQs, worth four GCSEs in the league tables, have helped to transform the results of many secondary schools.
But this can cause resentment among teachers of traditional GCSE subjects, who regard it as a "con".
And GNVQs are being phased out, under a government decision taken before they soared in popularity.
GNVQs - General National Vocational Qualifications - were designed for older learners but approved for pre-16 use.
In recent years there has been a boom in schools' use of them for youngsters aged 14 to 16.
available in 14 vocational areas
designed to provide a general education as preparation for employment or further study
unit-based, assessed through a combination of continuous portfolio work and short test papers
comprise 360 "guided learning hours", made up of six 60-hour units
students can achieve a pass, merit or distinction grade
equivalent to four GCSEs at grade C
The biggest uptake has been in the subject of information and communication technology (ICT).
This year more than half the 105,000 Intermediate GNVQ entries were in ICT.
Schools have found they appeal especially to lower achievers turned off by a more academic curriculum.
Two thirds of the assessment is through coursework.
Overall the pass rate was 79%, compared with the 61.2% of GCSE entries achieving the equivalent grades.
A side benefit - one that has made them controversial - is their official "equivalence" in the performance tables.
An Intermediate GNVQ at any level - pass, merit or distinction - is worth the equivalent of four GCSEs at grade C or above.
The crucial benchmark for schools is the proportion of pupils getting the equivalent of five such GCSEs.
Birmingham teacher John Connolly complained to the BBC News website that the government was encouraging an "education con".
At his school, the proportion pf pupils achieving the benchmark last year rose by 21 percentage points.
"This was not due to massive improvements in teaching or learning, better lessons or even an intake of pupils who were much more able," he said.
"It was due to the GNVQ ICT, worth four GCSEs and much easier than nearly every other single GCSE subject."
'Veneer of improvement'
He said Education Secretary Ruth Kelly was "enforcing 'dumbing down' by creating an atmosphere akin to the Emperor's New Clothes fairy tale".
"Everyone is afraid to speak out because they dare not criticise a sure-fire way to boost their all-important five GCSE at A*-C grades.
"This fact needs to be regularly highlighted if we are to avoid a real reduction in standards being hidden by a veneer of improvement," he said.
When Ofsted inspectors visited the school earlier this year they praised its provision in the humanities - geography and history - as "very good".
Results have been rising - but at the level of three or four percentage points a year.
"We do not have the quick fix of 'new' qualifications," Mr Connolly said.
He was moved to speak out by Ms Kelly's recent criticism of "coasting" schools.
She said there were inconsistencies in achievement between similar, middle-ranking schools - and between departments within schools.
Mr Connolly said: "The reason middle-ranking schools are 'coasting' is because they often do not engage in these types of qualification, seeing little intrinsic value in them for pupils or the local community."
He added: "My objection is to Ruth Kelly trying to claim that the results improvement in some schools is the same as educational improvement. "It is not and that needs to be made clear."
Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University's Centre for Education and Employment Research has been tracking exam results over the years.
He said current school vocational qualifications were "not so much a soft option as a bit of a con".
The increasing popularity of vocational education was "largely a fiction" fuelled mainly by the "false weighting" in league tables.
"Fortunately, this particular scam will be scuppered by the new English and maths based tables," he said.
This is a reference to the new benchmark being introduced by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), in pilot form this year, which will require the "five A* to C" to include actual GCSEs in maths and English.
"These changes will ensure that all schools are focusing on ensuring their pupils are equipped with the basic skills," said a spokesman for the department.
Head teachers who have found Intermediate GNVQs useful have appealed for a stay of execution, but there is no sign of this.
The DfES said they would be replaced with a range of qualifications including new GCSEs in vocational subjects "which we consider are more appropriate" for under-16s.
Part of the its reforms to 14 to 19 learning include new specialised diplomas designed with employers and higher education. The first should appear by 2008.
To help schools find alternatives to the GNVQ, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has a website dedicated to the subject.
This addresses questions such as "what are BTec certificates and diplomas?"
The search has not been without problems. The QCA has now decided that some BTecs, originally included as prospective alternatives, are not suitable.
Another suggested alternative is OCR Nationals.
The OCR Level 2 National Certificate in information technology, for example, is a six-unit qualification.
There are no exams. Tutors will assess students' work.
It is worth four good GCSEs.