By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
The head of the "most improved" school in England has appealed to ministers not to scrap the qualification behind his students' success.
The science GNVQ is said to rekindle children's interest
Schools like the North School, Kent, find they can boost students' interest in science - and their league table positions - using an online course.
The course, said to have "quick, easy assessment", leads to the equivalent of four GCSEs at grades A* to C.
So it can make up the bulk of the key benchmark by which schools are judged of five good GCSEs or the equivalent.
But the qualification that it leads to - the Intermediate GNVQ - is due to be phased out by 2007.
The online course is offered by 3E's Enterprises, the commercial arm of Kingshurst City Technology College on the eastern edge of Birmingham. It is accredited by the OCR exam board.
Schools pay £2,000 a year for a site licence. They can use their government-issued e-Learning Credits to purchase it.
Students do six units over two years, two of them externally tested, the remainder assessed internally through portfolios, with "writing frames" provided for them to record their investigations.
Stressing that the course is "scientifically rigorous", it says it can be used "with students of all abilities and in particular raise performance levels of underachieving students".
"The highly visual and interactive nature of the course motivates students, giving them a clearer understanding of the relevence [sic] of studying science as it applies to the real world," says its website.
3E's says some 4,500 students in 200 schools are using the course, including some schools which have made dramatic improvements in their GCSE-level performance.
GCSE-level results at the North School in Ashford, Kent, rose from 23% of students getting good grades in 2003 to 60% last year.
Its head teacher, Simon Murphy, said he had decided three years ago to have a core subject with "a bit more street credibility".
Science had been suffering under the "plain vanilla" offerings of physics, chemistry and biology, he said.
The online sports science module includes a guide to Reebok trainers
"It doesn't appeal to our current students."
So he had been very excited by the Kingshurst science model.
Mr Murphy said his was "a good old-fashioned secondary modern" school for children "who have failed their 11-plus".
"We want them to leave feeling successful, thinking they can make a really good go of life, with a range of qualities and skills to go on and feel that, actually, maybe they want to go to university."
It was producing youngsters with the technical skills the country needed.
He acknowledged that the way the GNVQ was counted as the equivalent of four good GCSEs had contributed to the North School's "most improved" status.
But - like others in the same position - he believes it can transform the way children perceive their learning environment.
In their recent book, Excellence in Education, Sir Cyril Taylor, the chair of the Specialist Schools Trust, and Conor Ryan, special adviser to former education secretary David Blunkett, cite many examples of schools which have used GNVQs in the process of transforming their results.
The other joint "most improved" school last year was Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat school in east London.
Its latest annual performance assessment by Ofsted showed that significantly fewer of its pupils than in other schools got A* to C grades in their English language and literature, French, geography and mathematics GCSEs.
There were no subjects in which they did significantly better.
Yet in the GCSE-level league tables, its achievements were well above average - with 87% surpassing the government target level - and its improvement has been such that, with the North School, it was praised by ministers.
The explanation of this apparent anomaly is that many students take other qualifications than GCSEs, including the science Intermediate GNVQ (though not, in its case, the 3E's course).
The Intermediate GNVQ that has been taken up in the biggest numbers nationally is in information and communication technology (ICT).
The school with by far the best average GCSE-level points in England in 2004, Thomas Telford in Shropshire, markets an online version.
It has made so much money from this that it is sponsoring two new city academies.
The school with the second highest points score, Brooke Weston in Northamptonshire, also runs an Intermediate GNVQ course in ICT.
All 178 15-year-olds there took and passed the qualification last year, in addition to their excellent results in GCSEs - which included the science double award and, for 46 students, separate physics, chemistry and biology.
And its GNVQ course was in use in more than 120 other schools, "not only raising standards nationally but also generating income, enabling us to support further educational initiatives including the proposed academy," according to the chair of governors, Peter Hedges, in his annual report.
So it is something of a surprise that these Intermediate GNVQs are being phased out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
The decision was prompted by the introduction of "applied" GCSEs, with ministers concerned not to have a confusion of vocational qualifications.
At the North School, Simon Murphy said he felt so strongly about the value of the Intermediate GNVQ that he had written to the previous education secretary, Charles Clarke, to ask him to keep it.
If the government wanted people to be switched on to learning, "let's not cut off our nose to spite our face", he had told him.
He said he had received a very diplomatic reply along the lines of "these things are being constantly reviewed".
His main concern is what to replace it with - perhaps the BTec First diploma, also worth four GCSEs.
But if there was "any pressure we can bring to bear on the government to give a respite", he would prefer to see the GNVQ retained.
3E's has been developing something it calls Click Science, online modular course materials designed to cover a much wider range of qualifications.
The exam board Edexcel has been working on a replacement for the information technology GNVQ, and says it has seen strong demand.
"With an equivalency of four GCSEs and a school league tables presence, the Diploma in Digital Applications (DiDA) is designed to enhance curriculum provision following the withdrawal of the GNVQ in ICT qualification in 2007," it says.
Spokeswoman Stevie Pattison-Dick said this was proving to be one of the most oversubscribed subjects the board had ever offered.
Some 2,500 students in about 50 schools were piloting it and another 25 centres would join in September.
Extra training courses for teachers had had to be laid on and all were full.
Two schools were marketing "off-the-shelf" online teaching materials for the new qualification, she said: Thomas Telford and Brooke Weston.