A wave of government initiatives, targets, and short-term measures are failing to address deep-seated problems in the education system, leading academics have warned.
A report from the Nuffield Foundation published yesterday said that "policy busyness" by ministers fell short of the radical reform needed to keep young people in education.
The Nuffield study, led by Professor Richard Pring of Oxford University, warned that unprecedented numbers of policy initiatives, including national targets, new qualifications and short-term funding schemes, were unlikely to produce significant improvements in the education and training system for under-19s.
The report highlighted "the persistence of deep-seated problems concerning the structure of the system". It added: "Policymakers tend to address symptoms of these deep-seated problems rather than tackling their underlying causes. Moreover, in responding to symptomatic problems, Government has attempted to implement a whole range of policies at a very fast pace."
The report called for a "complete overhaul" of the way teenagers are assessed at school and college, and warned that the introduction of university top-up fees "could militate against increasing and widening participation" in higher education.
Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said: "The Nuffield Foundation have hit the nail on the head. The consequences of the Government's misguided policies and never-ending initiatives are staring us all in the face.
"When one in four young people quits education altogether at 16, something is going seriously wrong.
"League tables have created perverse incentives where schools are forced to focus on their ranking rather than doing what's best for their pupils."
Nick Gibb, a shadow Schools minister, said: "The Nuffield review is more evidence that the plethora of government initiatives in education is producing little effect on standards as a whole."
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned that the introduction of measures such as new GCSE-level specialist diplomas would still leave 16-year-olds outside education or training.
He added: "There still seems to be little understanding of the limits to schools' capacity to absorb change or of the need to foster the teaching profession's ownership of initiatives."
Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams regulator, denied that reforms would be ineffective. He said: "I disagree with the statement that the reforms are unlikely to produce significant improvements to the education and training system as a whole."
The Department for Education and Skills also defended its reforms. A spokesman said: "Assessing pupil progress is necessary to achieve higher standards, and this year we have seen a further rise in the number of young people achieving five good GCSEs.
"This is further evidence that the reforms and investment we have made in our schools, together with the hard work of teachers and pupils, is raising standards and providing more young people with more opportunities.
"We need to make sure that the system is working for every teenager, and that is why we are taking forward radical changes to 14-19 learning that will further raise attainment, tackle 'drop-out', ensure that every child leaves school with the basics and provide more choice for young people."