Ministers have been ordered to withdraw adverts for their flagship diploma qualifications after advertising watchdogs ruled they were misleading.
The ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is an embarrassment for Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, who recently claimed that diplomas could take over from A-levels as the natural education route for Britain's schoolchildren.
Two adverts, one for radio stations and the other for national newspapers, claimed that the diploma was accepted by all universities when in fact some were refusing to do so.
The radio advert stated: "The diploma is a qualification for 14 to 19-year-olds that's accepted by all universities." The national newspaper advert read: "An Advanced Diploma, worth 3.5 A-levels, can get you into any university."
Listeners and readers complained to the ASA that the adverts were misleading, specifically because Cambridge University only accepted one of the five diplomas first offered to students last year, in engineering.
In its response, the Department for Children, Schools and Families acknowledged that "a small number of universities, including Cambridge" had said they would not accept all five diplomas but would accept engineering.
However, the ASA maintained that some universities had said they would not accept any of the five diplomas being offered by schools. It said that the adverts "implied all diplomas represented a level of academic qualification that would be accepted by all universities".
"That was not the case," it added. The ASA said that the radio advert breached its standards code because it was "misleading" and the national newspaper one did not pass a "truthfulness" test. As a result of the ruling, neither advert will be allowed to be used again.
Michael Gove, the Conservatives' education spokesman, said of the diplomas: "Universities aren't impressed, teachers are confused and students have shunned the courses. So, in desperation, the Government spent millions on an advertising campaign which has now been exposed as dishonest."
However, a DCSF spokeswoman said the department disagreed with the ASA's decision, and insisted that all universities had said they would accept one or more of the qualifications.