The future looks bleak for the tens of thousands of 16-year-olds who left school this year without a single GCSE.
Nearly 40 per cent will join the ranks of the unemployed having failed to find work or further training. But students who gain four D grades or less are almost as likely to miss out as those who get nothing, according to researchers.
Peter Robinson, senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: "The crucial boundary is five or more lower grade GCSEs. Our research shows little difference in the outcome for someone with four Ds and Es compared to someone with no GCSEs at all.
"But a reasonable number of low grades offers young people a good chance of progressing post-16 either to an intermediary course or to employment."
Research shows that 38 per cent of 16-year-olds with no GCSEs will be unemployed and excluded from education and training. Last year 47,000 16-year-olds left English schools without any GCSEs.
Those with between one and four low grades have a 30 per cent chance of not finding anything, but this figure drops sharply to 15 per cent for those with five low grades, and to 3 per cent for those with five or more A to C grades.
But those with only a couple of low grades can still salvage the situation with work and enthusiasm, say training providers.
Godfrey Blakeley of the training and enterprise councils said: "However bad someone's GCSE results there will be training available that can act as a stepping stone to something else. The classroom doesn't suit everyone and some students who have come away with no qualifications thrive under work-based learning."
But employers can be unwilling to train students with F and G grades, according to Valerie Jarvis, senior research officer at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
"Employers are happy to take youngsters with Ds and Es and those who show potential. But it would be difficult for an employers to take someone with an F or G in English and maths because their level of literacy and numeracy would make it difficult to add extra skills," she said. "Employers don't have the cash to act as a school; they want staff who can be trained in specific tasks."
But Hilary Steedman of the London School of Economics' centre for economic performance said research had shown that pupils with poor GCSE results were not necessarily the least literate or numerate.
"Employers should not write off pupils with poor results. (We) found that many pupils who did badly at GCSE were pretty numerate and conversely some with good GCSE grades did very badly.