Demand for GCSE courses is falling as students continue to choose practical alternatives in subjects such as food safety and music.
For the third year in a row, the number of GCSEs taken dropped, down to 5.54 million last year from 6.21 million in 2007/08, according to a report by the exams regulator Ofqual.
It suggested that the decline may be due to the increase in vocational qualifications offered in schools as well as changes to the size of year groups.
In total, 7.96 million “other” (often vocational) qualifications were awarded last year, up more than three times from the 2.2 million taken in 2002/03.
The numbers have been steadily rising year on year, although they stalled last year compared to 2009/10, when 7.99 million were awarded.
The report shows that almost 160,000 students took a Level 1 award in music performance last year, while a similar number took a Level 2 award in food safety in catering – which is equivalent to a GCSE.
It means more people took these courses than took traditional GCSEs in chemistry, German, biology, physics or Spanish.
There was also a rise in AS-level achievement last year, with 1.3 million awards compared with 1.13 million the year before.
A-level awards remained static at 0.88 million.
Ofqual’s report also shows that the cost of exams has risen.
In total, schools spent £328.3m on exam fees last year, compared with £302.6m the year before, a change which has caused concern in the Department for Education.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want more children to have a broad and balanced education that includes English, maths, science, a language and a humanity – the subjects in the English Baccalaureate.
“Since we introduced this measure, there has already been an increase in pupils choosing these core academic subjects.
“Our reforms to league tables mean that while GCSEs will continue to count, low-quality qualifications that don’t help young people into further study or jobs will be stripped out.”
He added: “We are concerned about the scale of school spending on exams – this is money that could otherwise be spent on teaching.
“Expenditure on exams, including exam fees, is one of the most significant calls on school and college budgets, and has been growing in real terms, as has the percentage of budgets that this represents.”