It is a classic example of the best being the enemy of the good. Schools under pressure to hit government performance targets set very high entry requirements for A-level students. The rest go to college, a training centre or, worse, drop out.
This is where social segregation and inequality start - a trend reinforced by institutional arrangements. All favours follow the socio-economically advantaged sixth-form students: more cash, more kudos, more contact with teachers - and higher average salaries for life.
It beggars belief that a Labour government committed to improved social mobility should allow such conditions to pertain for almost 10 years. The research findings from Greenwich University this week (page 1) make depressing reading. The divide between the educational haves and have-nots appears to be as great as ever.
The cause of this malaise has not really changed The English education system is elitist, wrapped cosily in traditional middle-class values and deaf to those with the weakest voices. After tinkering with A-levels and post-16 institutional arrangements, Tony Blair and his ministers walk the well-trodden path through Middle England.
This is not to decry what has been achieved - increased staying-on rates, higher achievement and far better relations between education and industry.
But what might have been achieved with a truly radical 14-19 curriculum and assessment package and cash targeted at those in need?
Study authors Geoff Stanton and Mick Fletcher lay bare the issue. "Those 'with weaker voices' also suffer from the constant experimentation with vocational qualifications, which contrasts markedly with the careful and cautious approach to reforming the academic route. One is subject to continuous revolution (with apparently little understanding of what already exists): the other to careful evolution (with apparently little understanding of some urgent problems)."
They find little evidence that Labour's cherished notions of "choice, diversity and specialisation" will deliver. If anything, they will work against the half of the population with the lowest participation rates.
Their siren warnings sound like a call to scrap all school sixth forms.
That would be a call too far. What they do call for is what New Labour promised. They echo the party's rallying cry when in opposition: "a managed tertiary system offers the best prospect of both quality and equity".