Less than one-third of candidates for general national vocational qualifications were able to achieve the lowest level of the award within the normal time span, according to this week's results.
The number of 16-year-olds failing to reach the Foundation level - equivalent to four GCSEs at grades D-G - has injected fresh urgency into the development of an even lower entry-level qualification.
Privately, officials concede that the Foundation level has become "a dumping ground" for those candidates with serious academic problems.
Entry-level qualifications were recommended by Sir Ron Dearing in his recent review of 16-19 education. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications hope to introduce such courses for the start of the 1999 academic year.
This is the third year of the Foundation level GNVQ, designed for 15 and 16-year-olds. Courses were taken by 19,700 candidates of which only 31. 23 per cent achieved the full award within a year - the recommended time. A further 35 per cent reached a part award.
This compares with an overall pass rate of 51.17 per cent across the three types of GNVQ (Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced), strengthening suspicions that Foundation level candidates are particularly weak.
Only 474 students passed with distinction.
In theory there is no time constraint for GNVQs. Government officials insist that, with candidates allowed unlimited re-takes, there can be no identifiable failure rate. However, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard appeared to directly contradict her accompanying civil servants this week, and insisted that most students should pass the awards within the normal time span.