Less than fifty per cent of UK children complete their schooling, latest data reveal. More than 340,000 16-year-olds failed to meet the Government's secondary school benchmark - five GCSEs at C grade or higher including English and maths. More than 135,000 failed to achieve even one C grade last summer.
The figures also show that more than 375,000 secondary pupils - around one in seven - are being taught in comprehensives which Gordon Brown has threatened with closure unless their results improve. A total of 440 schools face being shut down or taken over if their GCSE performance fails to get better by a 2011 deadline.
Nearly a third of these schools expect to remain in the doldrums at least until 2010 - putting them at grave risk of closure, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, just 47.6 per cent of candidates finished compulsory schooling with a basic mastery of the three Rs and three other GCSE subjects or their vocational equivalent.
Results were up on 2007 but progress is half what it needs to be if ministers are to meet a 53 per cent Treasury target set for 2011.
The figures also showed that 21 per cent of pupils failed to achieve a single C grade in any GCSE subject, although five per cent achieved C grade standards in vocational qualifications deemed equivalent.
At the other end of the spectrum, one in seven schoolchildren - 14.2 per cent - achieved three A grades at A-level.
Grammars, faith schools and part-private academies were revealed as more effective at raising exam standards than so-called 'bog-standard comprehensives,' Laura Clark reported for Daily Mail.
But the figures for GCSEs suggested attainment in the core subjects such as the three Rs is rising more slowly than for other subjects.
The proportion gaining any five GCSEs rose almost four percentage points but the numbers able to count English and maths towards those five qualifications - the Government's preferred measure - went up just 1.3 points.
Teachers' leaders declared the scale of failure shameful but ministers insisted trends over the long term showed 'sustained improvement'.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: 'It is good to see an improvement on last year's results, reflecting the hard work put in by teachers and pupils.
'But there are still far too many pupils leaving school without five A* to C grades including English and maths at GCSE.
'It is truly shameful that half the pupils in England do not achieve this level.'
Fewer than one in three students achieved at least a C in a modern foreign language.
The poor showing follows a 2004 Government decision to make language learning optional for 14-year-olds.
The slump in entries for language GCSEs has led to fears our school-leavers will be ill-equipped on the job market.
Fewer than a quarter of state schools require GCSE students to learn languages, according to a report last year.
Language-learning is fast becoming the preserve of grammar and fee-paying schools as many comprehensives allow their students to decline to 'extremely low levels'.
Schools Secretary Ed Balls will attempt to reinvigorate the National Challenge programme today.
'We need to continue to concentrate on the remaining schools and ensure
we are giving them the support and challenge they need to make sure no child is left behind,' he said.