Almost two-thirds of students who drop out of A-levels are on the wrong course to start with, research by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests.
The NFER analysis and supportive research by the Further Education Development Agency, carried out for the Dearing review, endorses Sir Ron's call for better guidance, more attention to basics, a wider curriculum for all and the chance for A-level and general national vocational qualification students to switch course midstream without losing credit for the work already completed.
More than six out of 10 of the 80,000 students withdrawing from A-levels were identified by teachers in the NFER research as having "poor examination results during the course". A very high proportion appeared unable to cope with the demands of A-level.
It appears that the most ill-advised students were those who opted for maths-related courses. Of the drop-outs among those taking combinations of maths and science A-levels, 61 per cent found the maths too hard.
And of those withdrawing from wider courses combining maths, science and an arts or humanities A-level, 45 per cent found the going too tough in maths.
The strongest deterrents causing drop-outs among arts and humanities A-level students were a lack of motivation (72 per cent) and excessive workload (44 per cent).
Students on GNVQ courses were more likely to leave for a job than their academic counterparts. Eight out of 10 (81 per cent) withdrawing from GNVQ intermediate-level courses cited employment as a key reason for leaving, as did half (53 per cent) of those withdrawing from GNVQ advanced courses.
Students on GNVQ courses were far less likely to give academic reasons for quitting. This was reckoned to be partly because the assessment styles were very different from those used in A-levels.
Teachers reported that only around a quarter of the GNVQ drop-outs had poor assessment results during the course. The more likely reason were excessive workload or too heavy a workload compiling portfolios of evidence or completing assignments.
One of the most disturbing findings in the NFER research was that three -quarters of drop-outs from intermediate GNVQs did so through "lack of motivation".
Schools and colleges appeared to have problems keeping track of those leaving courses early. They failed to account for one-fifth of A-level student drop-outs and more than one-third of those from GNVQs.
Failures of initial guidance, tracking of students and clear information about drop-outs are repeatedly cited as causes for concern in a detailed review by the NFER of previous research projects.
However, the researchers point to the unreliable nature of much of the evidence: "It is difficult to provide an overview of drop-out rates from A-level and GNVQ courses because there is a lack of reliable information, studies use different definitions, and there is a variation between rates reported for different institutions, types of course and subject area."