Tech-levels to have A-level status in skills plan
Technical courses for 16 to 19-year-olds will gain the same status as A-levels from 2014 but only if they attract business or university support, the government has announced.
The Tech-level qualifications are aimed at raising the status of vocational qualifications in England.
The overhaul follows concerns about variable quality.
One awarding body said it was "incorrect" to infer that other skills qualifications were worthless.
The changes will mean that only vocational courses that achieve Tech-level status will count in the secondary league tables for 16 to 19-year-olds from 2016. Some 80% of vocational qualifications for this age group will be removed.
There will be two types of vocational qualification under the new system.
Tech-levels will take as long to complete as A-Levels and will need to be endorsed by either a professional association or by five employers registered with Companies House.
These qualifications will focus on hands-on practical training, leading to recognised occupations for example in engineering, computing, accounting or hospitality.
In addition, Applied General Qualifications will take the same time to complete as AS-levels and will focus on broader study of a technical area, not directly linked to an occupation.
These qualifications will need backing from three universities to count in performance tables.
A Tech-level along with a core maths qualification, for example AS-level maths, and an extended project will amount to an over-arching Technical Baccalaureate, says the government.
The shake-up comes after a review of vocational qualifications for the government by Prof Alison Wolf two years ago, which suggested that the current system was failing young people, with schools tempted to teach qualifications that attracted the most points in school performance tables.
This meant students were steered to take qualifications that might not help them into work or higher education, she suggested.
Last year the government announced controls on which vocational qualifications for 14- to 16-year-olds would count in the school league tables.
On Thursday, the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, said: "High-quality rigorous vocational education is essential to future prosperity and the life chances of millions.
"Because technical education is so important, it is vital the qualifications young people take are stretching, high-quality and support their aspirations.
"These reforms are unashamedly aspirational and will ensure Tech-levels help people into apprenticeships and jobs."
Chris Jones, director general of the vocational skills awarding body City and Guilds, said: "The excessive focus on league tables in today's announcement is potentially very damaging.
"By only including Tech-level qualifications in the league tables, it infers that many other vocational qualifications are worthless. This is incorrect.
"As shown by recent research from the IPPR [Institute for Public Policy Research], countries that have more young people engaged in vocational education see lower levels of youth unemployment."
The CBI said it backed the principle but would need reassurance that the system would "need to command respect across entire sectors" and not just be run by a "handful of firms".
Neil Carberry, CBI director of employment and skills, said: "The litmus test is that Tech-levels offer the gold-standard training that employers want while not being seen as second-class.
"Courses must have stretching subject knowledge, rigorous assessment, hard-nosed practical experience, and be a stepping stone to a great career.
"The new system must be very clear about which provision is deemed 'occupational' and which is to be 'applied general'.
"Perception is all with qualifications, so we must avoid a two-tier system, where one is seen as too narrow and the other as too broad.
"We want to see the more rigorous Tech-level brand extended to both."
Gill Clipson, of the Association of Colleges, supported the call for qualifications to be approved by universities and businesses, but warned that "creating three separate 'routes' which segregate qualifications into pre-determined categories with pre-determined destinations is too restrictive".
She added: "It is unlikely to be the best way to give students the opportunity to choose the right mix of qualifications."
Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders warned that "developing high quality vocational qualifications that have A level status is a complex and highly specialised task and the timescale set is challenging in the extreme".
Labour's Tristram Hunt said: "After three years of the government downgrading vocational education, there are almost a million young people unemployed.
"It's no surprise that David Cameron and Michael Gove are now desperately playing catch up, while Labour sets the agenda on skills.
"It is right that pupils have a choice of taking new vocational courses, but Michael Gove needs to reassure parents that it will be a gold standard to sit alongside A-levels and not an afterthought.
"Labour's plans for a Tech Bacc would ensure that pupils do rigorous vocational courses accredited by employers, English and maths to 18 and a quality work experience placement."