A really confused Yank here
The U.S. educational system is different enough from the British one that I frequently have a hard time understanding some of what you Brits are talking about. However, the one underlying theme (besides what sounds like a truly messed up bureaucracy) that strikes me as really odd is the way that compulsory education seems to stop two years earlier than ours. In the U.S., graduation is after 12th grade at 18. Secondary school (grades 7th-12th) is typically broken down to 7-8 and 9-12. Only the latter are considered to be vocational or college prep.
To this Yank, terminating two years earlier sounds like it forces kids to specialise way too much way too early. I would argue that instead, what is really needed is a much, MUCH more rounded education that prepares kids for a broad range of careers.
Here, you need a minimum number of English, Math, Science, Art, and what we call Social Studies (civics, history, economics, etc.) to graduate. It's possible for a kid aiming at a job as, say, a diesel mechanic to get by with some pretty minimal classes if s/he wants to. Nothing prevents kids from mixing things up as much as they want to, though.
Take me as a somewhat extreme example. I went through high school 30 years ago. I packed on a pretty full load my last three years because I was bored and love learning new stuff. Minimum number of credits necessary to graduate was 15 per trimester. Each class was 3-5 credits, I think. I carried 16-18.
I took Honors English, Honors History, Honors Math, Honors Physics, Honors Chemistry. I also took Small Engine Repair, Fundamentals of Flight (satisfied the coursework necessary for a private pilot's license and we got to actually pilot a small plane twice ourselves), Woodworking I, Basic and Advanced Electronics, a year of Computer Programming, Debate, 3 years of Spanish (my dad taught that while another teacher taught German), Basic Typing (hey, it's where all the cute girls were!), Biology, Art, Physical Education, and some other odds and ends that I can't recall at the moment. Just about every vocational track available had enough classes to allow a high school student to step into a job like junior mechanic, carpenter's apprentice, or lumberjack.
My last two daughters are going through high school right now in the same state but a different school district. Yes, things have degraded some, but not as much as it sounds like they have in the UK. My kids have a choice of Advanced Placement or basic classes in English, Math, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry. For languages, they have a choice of Spanish, French, and American Sign Language. As I mentioned earlier, they are also required to take a few classes in Social Studies, Art, and Physical Education. Both of my daughters are participating in the school's string orchestra to meet the Art requirement. One of them is a all year athlete (cross country, cross country skiing, and track) so she doesn't need to attend the Phy Ed classes.
Among other things, this school also offers Woodworking, auto body repair, woodworking, and electronics. It's clearly still possible to get a really well rounded education if you wish to, or even just concentrate on preparing for a trade.
Now, here's the real kicker: Neither of the two example schools that I cite is all that unusual here. The first school is in a small town in northern Minnesota while the second is in a suburb of the Twin Cities. Reading the comments as well as the base article suggests that only the Scots have anything like this kind of school available. Is this really the case?