Demand for GCSEs is falling as students continue to choose practical courses 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 from 2.2 million 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 £328.3 million on exam fees last year, compared with £302.6 million the year before.