A senior government adviser said it was "absolutely scandalous" that more than half the nation's teenagers left school without C-grade passes in maths and English.
Professor Alison Wolf, of King's College, London, said: "It is a real failure of our education system."
Professor Wolf, who was launching a government review of vocational education, also said it was"immoral" for schools to put youngsters in for vocational qualifications merely to boost their rankings in controversial exam league tables.
Her inquiry warned of the "perverse incentives" of the league tables.
Many schools have improved their performance by putting hordes of youngsters in for vocational qualifications – deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE qualifications.
"In the last few years because of the pressure of league tables, we have moved away (from offering a core academic curriculum)," she said.
"This is a very bad thing for young people and it is immoral."
Her report recommended excluding some of the qualifications from league tables – a move endorsed by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
It warned that about 350,000 youngsters a year were being steered towards "dead end" qualifications after the age of offering little or no prospect of employment at the end of the day.
It said the key to success was obtaining at least a C grade pass in maths and English but warned only 45 per cent of youngsters did so at 16. Of those that failed, only four per cent managed to achieve it by the age of 19.
It said all youngsters must continue to study English and maths with a view to retaking their GCSEs if they failed to reach the benchmark at 16 .
In addition, more youngsters should be encouraged to enter the world of work at 16 – with the Government encouraging employers to take them on through making payment to firms to encourage them to offer apprenticeships.
The recommendation is in stark contrast to that made by the previous Labour government who wanted all youngsters to remain in some form of education and training until 18.
The report concluded that "attempts to fix the system over the past ten years have failed".
In particular, it singled out Labour's flagship diplomas – designed to embrace both academic and vocational study and said by then Education secretary Ed balls to be a likely successor to A-levels – which had been taken up by fewer than one per cent of students.
Mr Gove described Professor Wolf's report as "brilliant and groundbreaking"
"Getting at least a C in English and maths GCSE is absolutely vital for a young person's future education and employment so those subjects should be compulsory for 16 to 19-year-olds who have not achieved this," he added.
"A lesson from abroad is that 14 to 16-year-olds should spend 80 per cent of their time on a shared academic core of subjects."Reuse content