Higher and further education leaders united this week to criticise the Government for wasting the opportunity to reform 16-to-19 education.
The Government has ignored the central plank of proposals drafted by Sir Mike Tomlinson by ditching his suggestion for an overarching diploma that would improve staying-on rates at the age of 16 while creating parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications.
Instead Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, announced on Wednesday plans for new specialised diplomas in vocational areas only. They will be offered in 14 subject areas including retail, public services, sport and leisure, manufacturing and travel and tourism.
The first four diplomas - in information and communications technology, engineering, health and social care and the creative and media industries - will be available nationally by 2008. All 14 will be in place by 2015.
Some of these vocational diplomas could include existing academic qualifications. For example, a student taking an engineering diploma could take A-level maths as part of the qualification.
Ms Kelly said: "Today will mark the end of the divide between vocational and academic study. We will move to a truly comprehensive education system for every teenager by ensuring real choice from the age of 14."
University admissions staff will be given information on the grades students gained in each unit at AS level. Optional harder questions at the end of A-level papers will also allow the best students to gain merit and distinction awards. A levels will be reviewed in 2008.
Ms Kelly said she would like to see a post-qualification applications system in place by 2010.
An extended project to stretch all young people could also be used by universities to discriminate between students.
Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "If A levels are to continue, it is important to ensure that the new vocational diploma has parity of esteem with them and provides multiple opportunities for cross-over between academic and vocational routes."
John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "The White Paper is a wasted opportunity. The Government has once again underlined its commitment to academic above vocational education.
"The 'radical transformation' of vocational education of which the Secretary of State talks fails to create a system that values the achievements of all our young people, especially those in the local colleges who cater for two out of three 16 to 19-year-olds in learning.
"The interests of the hundreds of thousands of 14 to 19-year-olds taking vocational courses will continue to be neglected."
Chris Humphries, director-general of vocational awarding body City and Guilds, sat on the coherent programmes sub-group of Sir Mike's review.
He said: "This is a retrograde and damaging step for Britain's educational system, which goes against the advice and opinion of thousands of educationalists across schools, vocational colleges and universities who contributed to the Tomlinson review.
"There has been a growing consensus that a system that only produces success for 50 per cent of students - as GCSEs do - cannot be adequate in a competitive and economically inclusive society, and that young people need a broader curriculum that better prepares all of them for future learning, work and adult life.
"Every other country in the world that used to offer the British A-level system has changed to one that expects greater breadth and choice for all its young people - the UK needs to ask why it should remain the exception."
Sir Mike had earlier told The Sunday Times that scrapping the notion of a single diploma for vocational and academic subjects would mean "the problems we have now will be perpetuated".