All students should study at least five academic subjects up to the age of 16, claims a report. The findings, published by influential think tank Reform, warns that England is "unique" among developed nations in the "narrowness" of its expectations of pupils at 16. It says there is a perception that some pupils are unable to cope with academic study, which does not exist in other nations.
Teenagers are only expected to sit GCSEs in English and maths, whereas in many other countries, pupils are expected to take between four and six core academic qualifications.
The study warns that there is a perception in England that some students are unable to cope with academic study, which does not exist in other nations.
This perception has led to some pupils being pushed towards vocational qualifications.
But there is evidence that while successfully gaining GCSEs can add 15% to a pupil's future average earnings, vocational qualifications do not provide a similar result, the report says.
Only 0.2 per cent of students who take non-academic qualifications go on to university, it claims.
The report, entitled Core Business, calls for every 16-year-old to study a core of five academic GCSEs, including English, maths, sciences, foreign languages and history or geography.
It says: "The continuing move away from academic qualifications could lead to a new cultural divide developing, entrenching privilege and further impacting on the UK's poor social mobility.
"A number of grammar and the best comprehensive schools are already encouraging their pupils to follow more rigorous routes such as the three separate science GCSEs, while independent schools are increasingly offering well-regarded qualifications like the International Baccalaureate and International GCSE.
"Meanwhile the most disadvantaged children are deprived of opportunities for rigorous academic study, and are instead pushed to follow non-academic qualifications that boost league table results."
The report analysed the standard of English, maths and science GCSEs, compared to similar qualifications in Canada, Germany, France, Japan and the United States.
It found that while English GCSE was of a similar standard, the science papers showed a "clear aversion to academic rigour" and a "noticeable intellectual deficiency when compared with the other countries."
And in maths, candidates are "frequently led through the solutions in very small steps".
The report says the Government was right to acknowledge that there should be some "core" academic study for all pupils.
This led to the introduction of "functional skills" qualifications in English and maths.
But it adds that academic levels of these qualifications is "far below" that of GCSEs.
The report recommends universities and school heads of department take control of exam standards, instead of exams watchdog Ofqual, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA).
And it calls for league tables to be changed so that they only measure attainment of GCSEs, rather than vocational qualifications as well.
Dale Bassett, senior researcher at Reform, said: "For three decades governments have pushed more and more school children into poor quality vocational routes, on the unfounded assumption that they just can't handle academic study.
"Other countries understand that only a strong academic core can help social mobility and guarantee our future economic success. It's time for England to catch up."
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said: "It's plain wrong to say we are 'pushing' pupils towards vocational qualifications - we're clear about the need to offer a broad, flexible and yet at all times challenging education, including GCSEs, diplomas and apprenticeships, so that young people have the opportunity to do the qualifications that are right for them.
"Different qualifications do not mean a drop in standards or a lack of challenge, and we have established an independent regulator, Ofqual, to oversee standards.
"The system proposed in this report is prescriptive and would mean all young people are forced to take a set of exams that may not be right for them. That would be unfair to pupils and deny teachers the freedom to help pupils decide."
Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove said: "This report highlights once again how we are falling behind international competitors when it comes to educational standards. That is why we would insist the regulator scrutinises the exams our children sit so they stand comparison with the world's best.
"And we would allow state schools to sit the rigorous exams that are currently only available to private school pupils, so that children from less well-off backgrounds are not at a disadvantage to their wealthier peers."