Leading article: Celebrate success, but our school system fails too many

Divisions are glaring, not just between state and independent schools, but within the state sector

Each August brings a familiar ritual: tense anticipation of the A-level results; the boast that schools have done better than ever, because the tally of A and now A* grades has gone up; and the happy pictures of school-leavers, preferably attractive girls, jumping for joy after achieving their required grades. This year has been the same – but also different. Competition for university places is stiffer than usual, as would-be students try to beat the swingeing fee increases that come into force next year. More of those with good grades will be disappointed.

But this year is also different in another way. The A-level results came out just 10 days after some of the worst rioting in English cities for 30 years, and only a day after the publication of unexpectedly disappointing figures for unemployment. Across Britain, one in five of those aged between 16 and 24 has no job. Many of them are among the 30,000 or so who leave school each year without any GCSEs. While teachers, schools and government ministers bask in this year's A-level successes, it should not be forgotten that large numbers are failed by the same system.

This country's schooling is among the most divided in the developed world. One in nine of all adults has no qualifications. The divisions are glaring, not only between independent and state schools, but within the state sector. Catchment areas and house prices reinforce social segregation – and life chances. In data published last month, the Sutton Trust charity found "stark" differences between schools, according to the number and proportion of pupils that went on to the better universities. Most of the gap could be accounted for by the difference in A-level results; in other words, by pupil achievement, not – as is sometimes suggested – by discrimination on the part of elite institutions. Just as some pupils are effectively fast-tracked to success, so others are fast-tracked to failure.

This needs to be acknowledged for the national scandal it is. And what is no less scandalous is that there is no sign of the gaps closing. The prospects of pupils in poor areas or from poor families have changed little over 20 years. Britain has some of the worst indicators for social mobility of any country in Europe. Inequality of educational opportunity is the main reason why.

The last government tried to address some of the disparities by promising to raise per- pupil spending in state schools. The Coalition is introducing a "pupil premium", increasing the number of academies, and encouraging the creation of free schools – all changes designed in one way or another to overcome the diktat of the catchment area. Even if this has the desired effect, though, it will take years.

In the meantime, there are shortcomings that could and should be urgently addressed. The national curriculum, with its academic bias, has left pupils of a more practical bent struggling. The preoccupation with tests and league tables has encouraged teachers to focus on those in the middle, while those at the bottom may be neglected. Add the age-old British disdain for vocational qualifications, and the dismal picture is complete. As those who received good results yesterday look forward to university, ministers have another – urgent – imperative: to ensure that in future there are also other, less academic, paths to success.