Only one in six pupils in England achieved five A* to C grade passes in English, maths, a science, a language and a humanities subject at GCSE, league tables published yesterday show.
The figures mean that 269 schools didn't register one pupil as eligible for the Coalition's flagship new "English baccalaureate", designed to boost the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE. In more than 600 schools, only one in 50 pupils qualifies.
Nationally, just 15 per cent of GCSE candidates would have obtained the certificate, earned by pupils who obtain five A* to C grade passes in English, maths, a science, a language and a humanities subject.
Since league tables were introduced, many schools have improved their ranking by entering more pupils for vocational qualifications, which are deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE passes.
Figures released yesterday by the Government show that the take-up of science has dropped by 60,000 in the past four years, while the take-up of modern languages has dropped by a third in a decade.
Last night a furious row broke out over the Government's decision to rank schools on Baccalaureate eligibility this year, as the certificate will not officially be awarded to pupils until 2011. Dr Bernard Trafford, former president of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and head of Royal Newcastle Grammar School, described the measure as "a complete nonsense".
Restrictions on which courses count towards the Baccalaureate mean that those taking Edexcel's IGCSE – an exam based on the old O-level – would not be eligible, while those who used a different exam board would.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Today's announcement is unfair to young people... There are sure to be students who achieved 12 A-grades at GCSE, but because they did not choose to study history or geography as a humanities subject will not earn the Baccalaureate."
The impact the initiative could have on a school's fortunes can be seen at Darwin Academy in Lancashire. Although it managed to double the number of pupils earning five A* to C grades including maths and English, only 1.5 per cent of its boys and none of its girls qualified for the Baccalaureate.
However, others welcomed the new measure. Libby Steele, head of education at the Royal Society, said: "The introduction of an English Baccalaureate target is a logical step to ensure that young people receive a rounded education."