The emphasis on getting five good GCSEs should be shifted in favour of giving all school leavers key skills in areas such as English, maths, computers and social skills, says a study by a team of social policy experts at the London School of Economics.
The researchers condemn the school system for leaving large numbers of people with few or no qualifications. The report says: "Britain is unique in devising a school-based qualification system in which the majority of children are defined as failures. In fact, any system in which even a minority of children consider themselves to be failures is shameful, as well as ineffective."
The study provides heavyweight academic backing for the Government's campaign to raise standards in the Three Rs and other basic skills. It calls for schools to be given targets for increasing the employability of children, as well as their academic grades, and provide work-based education for children from as young as 13.
The researchers also urged schools to extend the so-called key skills to include social skills identified as crucial by employers. One businessman told academics: "I was surprised at how little students knew about things that are so basic at interview; shaking hands, smiling and looking people in the eye. Yet these basics are so important if the kids are going to have a chance."
The report, by staff at the LSE's Department of Social Policy, will strengthen the case for radical changes to the school system in the Government's flagship education action zones. The zones, which will be introduced from September, are designed to raise standards of the Three Rs in deprived areas by linking businesses with groups of 10 to 20 schools. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has urged radical action in the first 25 zones, which can tear up the national curriculum and change teachers' contracts to further their quest to improve standards.
The report studied education-business partnerships in Britain and abroad, focusing on schemes designed to help school leavers find a job. Mark Kleinman, one of the report's authors, said it was vital for businesses to get involved in schools if schemes to improve the educational standards and job prospects of young people were to be successful.
He said: "If you concentrate on the children who get five or more GCSEs at grade C or above then you are saying that about half of children are failures. Around 55 per cent of people don't get that, and realistically a majority or a large minority are not going to get that. We are saying there should be a benchmark that all pupils should be able to hit."
But Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, warned that the emphasis on basic skills could create a second-class education system for children unsuited to academic courses. He said: "We want them to have decent, recognised qualifications."