Teachers and politicians should not be blamed for the fact that thousands of pupils leave school every year without GCSEs, an academic has said.
Professor Ewart Keep, of Cardiff University, said the incidence of thousands of 16-year-olds failing to gain five GCSE grade Gs last year may be more of a reflection of their "chaotic" lives outside school.
Teenagers may also be responding to a labour market in which qualifications are not generally needed for low-skilled jobs.
The comments by Professor Keep, an authority on the links between education and employment, follow a report by the Bow Group, a right-of- centre think tank, which highlighted the fact that nearly 90,000 pupils left school last year without five GCSE grade Gs including English and maths.
The report added up the numbers falling into this category since 1997, which totalled 931,352. That led to the front-page headline in The Observer: "One million pupils `failed by Labour exam policy'".
In fact, the proportion of pupils achieving five A*-Gs, including English and maths, has improved since 1996, although only marginally, from 84 to 86.4 per cent.
Professor Keep said it was "depressing that a substantial number of young people leave school without any G grade GCSEs.
"But to what extent can schools or even politicians be blamed for that, when you look at the family backgrounds of many pupils coming into this category, and at the lives they lead?"
He added: "We are paying the price of a very polarised, fragmented and divided society, which is the background against which schools have to work."
The Bow Group report said that pupils without five GCSE C grades risked "becoming unemployable".
It said pound;70 billion had been spent in the last 10 years on educating pupils who failed to hit this target, implying the money was wasted.
The "unemployable" quotation was based on a 2006 survey by the Learning and Skills Council, which found that 22 per cent of employers would not recruit pupils without these grades. But 74 per cent of employers in the same survey said they would do so.
A 2006 report for the Confederation of British Industry also found only 58 per cent of employers set minimum levels of qualifications for new recruits.
Professor Keep said young people might be giving up on education because they knew that jobs, albeit often low-paid, were available without qualifications.
He said: "The idea that five good GCSEs is somehow this benchmark, and that if you fall below that employers will stamp a skull-and-crossbones on your skull and throw your application in the bin, is just wrong."