Most GCSE equivalents axed from school league tables
Ministers have cut the value of more than 3,100 vocational qualifications, ending their recognition in England's school league tables.
Courses such as horse care can be worth the same as four GCSEs.
The government says this has created "perverse incentives" for schools to offer exams that boost their league table position.
From 2014, only 70 "equivalents" will count in the GCSE tables and on a like-for-like basis with GCSEs.
The move could make schools less likely to continue to offer such qualifications, and the government has instructed them to wait for its final list before changing their timetables for September 2012.
Other examples of courses that may not be included in future league tables are the level 1 certificate in practical office skills; the BTec level 2 extended certificate in fish husbandry; and the level 2 certificate in nail technology services, all currently worth two GCSEs.
Some of those that will still count include a number of BTecs and OCR Nationals in performing arts, sport, health and social care, media, music and engineering.
Figures from the Department for Education show that the numbers of teenagers taking equivalent vocational courses has exploded in recent years - from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said the changes would extend opportunity because only qualifications which had demonstrated rigour, and had track records of taking young people into good jobs or university, would count in the future.
- The size of a GCSE or bigger
- Externally assessed - at least partly
- Include grades, rather than just pass or fail
- Offer progression to further qualifications and careers
- Have good take-up levels among 14- to 16-year-olds
The shake-up comes after last year's review of vocational qualifications for the government by Prof Alison Wolf, which suggested schools had been tempted to teach qualifications that attract the most points in school performance tables.
This had meant students had been steered into notching up qualifications which may not help them into work or higher education, she suggested.
Mr Gove said: "The weaknesses in our current system were laid bare by Prof Wolf's incisive and far-reaching review. The changes we are making will take time, but will transform the lives of young people.
"For too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualifications are intrinsically the same. Young people have taken courses that have led nowhere."'Stimulating'
But many who took part in the consultation on the issue feared the new measures may lead schools to only offer qualifications that could be included in performance tables.
Others feared the move might undervalue vocational qualifications altogether and have a negative impact upon disengaged young people who are often encouraged by such courses.
In particular the engineering community reacted angrily to the downgrading of the Engineering Diploma which was developed by leading academics and industrialists to provide a robust alternative to traditional academic qualifications.
Prof Wolf said she hoped the proposed shortlist would give "good vocational qualifications exactly the same status as any other qualifications".
"People were doing lots of qualifications which were getting league points for their schools but which, when they went out into the labour market or when they went to college, they found actually nobody valued.
"So we were essentially lying to kids and that's a terrible thing to do."
She added that she did not want children of 13 making "irreversible decisions" about their futures by choosing such specific courses.
Even after the reforms, the UK was likely to remain the European country which awarded the most vocational qualifications to 14- to 16-year-olds, she said.
Former Education Secretary David Blunkett said it was "entirely wrong" if schools were deliberately seeking to skew league tables but warned the tone of reforms risked discrediting important vocational qualifications.
"If there's a problem, let's root it out. But let's encourage youngsters to mix and match," he told the BBC's Today programme.
"I got my qualifications by getting a vocational qualification in business studies and going to evening classes to get A-levels at the same time."'Turned off'
James Whiting, deputy head of Chiswick Community School in west London, said it was unfair to accuse schools of bumping up league tables with vocational qualifications.
"I think often the motivation for schools, like ours, is to steer students onto courses in which they are going to succeed.
End Quote Christine Blower National Union of Teachers
It should not be up to the government to decide which exams are of more merit than others”
"What we don't want to do is to create a situation where students are set up to fail on courses that they find very hard."
He said the right, and rigorous, vocational qualifications were needed, but "we don't want to turn young people off".
As well as the 70 equivalents that will count towards the school's five good GCSE grades including English and maths, a further 55 will be valid for other league table measures.
However, the DfE will be reviewing the majority of qualifications to ensure they meet the new standards after 2014.
The shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, welcomed attempts to maintain rigour in the qualification system but warned against rushed changes.
"We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "It should not be up to the government to decide which exams are of more merit than others. This is something which should be assessed by major stakeholders such as the teaching profession and awarding bodies.
"Vocational education has often suffered from being viewed unfavourably. These reforms are likely to exacerbate the vocational/academic divide."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, questioned the wisdom of downgrading qualifications taken by so many young people.
"Changes of this scale, in the absence of any detailed review of the courses are reckless," she said.
"They will disenfranchise thousands of young people, remove qualifications employers value, narrow the school curriculum even more and lead to disaffection among pupils."