Almost 54 per cent of exam papers are expected to be grade C or above this year, but it seems that up to 50,000 pupils have not been entered at all - at least 11,500 more than last year. Added to the number who failed, never completed the coursework or did not turn up for the exams, the figures show that more than 90,000 pupils - more than one in seven - left school without qualifications this summer.
The revelation will raise new questions about Britain's ability to compete with other industrialised nations, such as Germany and Japan, where most pupils stay on at school longer and leave better qualified.
Last night, opposition politicians condemned the trend as proof that increased competition in the education system was leaving many youngsters on the scrapheap.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said weaker candidates were being kept out of the exam room.
"Too many young peoples' futures are being sacrificed on the altar of Tory league tables and market forces in education. Fear of these tables is leaving less able pupils in a class of their own - as far away from the exam halls as possible," he said.
There are almost 18,000 extra 16-year-olds in the system this year because of a rise in the birth rate, taking the total to almost 600,000. But despite the 3 per cent rise in pupil numbers, the number of exam entries has gone up by just 1 per cent, or about 6,300 candidates.
Figures compiled by the Labour Party show that in recent years, one pupil in eight has left school without qualifications. The disappearance of about11,500 pupils from the system this year suggests that that proportion is likely to rise dramatically.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said he was determined to see all pupils reaching at least GCSE level by the age of 18.
"Without essential qualifications, these young people will find it increasingly difficult to find lasting work or to move on to further qualifications later in life," he said.
League tables, introduced nationally in 1993, show the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A-C grades at GCSE rising annually, and now standing at 43.5 per cent.
But they tend to ignore the long tail of underachievement which many commentators feel is Britain's most pressing educational problem.
Sir John Cassells, director of the National Commission on Education, set up in 1991 to review education and training, said a third of the nation's youth was being failed; leaving with poor qualifications, or none at all.
"What seems to have been happening is that schools have been responding to the publication of tables by wanting as many people to pass as possible.
"If more teacher time is spent on getting pupils through, the less likely pupils don't get as much," he said.
Sir John claimed that, in inner-city areas, many schools had such poor intakes that they were really secondary moderns rather than comprehensives. In those same areas, many parents were not fully committed to education.
There are other possible explanations for the drop in exam entries, but none adequately explains the scale of the phenomenon. About 100 schools out of 4,000 have taken vocational qualifications for the first time this summer, and others may have decided to reduce the GCSEs taken by each pupil.
GCSE: RIP, page 12
How to get a university place
Almost 220,000 students have now been awarded university places for this Autumn, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Ucas, said last night. That left 70,000 places still available, with 108,000 people eligible to apply for them, officials confirmed. The latest official Ucas listings of places available through clearing are in section two of today's Independent.
- More about:
- Higher Education
- Liberal Democrat Party
- University Of The Arts London
- Young People's Literature