A consensus on the future of post-16 education is needed, says John Harwood, retiring chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council.
Mr Harwood, who has been at the helm of Britain's biggest-spending quango since its creation in 2001, said plans to increase the number of students and improve achievement must be protected against changes of government.
He said: "At the beginning of the 21st century, we are genuinely in a national crisis" - with the country having failed to leave behind its class-ridden 18th-century past, when it was "run by 200 families".
A consensus is needed about key objectives, such is getting 50 per cent of people into higher education and targets for the number reaching level 2 (GCSE equivalent), he told the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference, in London on Wednesday.
He said the education landscape would be very different if the 1944 Education Act had been fully carried out and that all the major political parties needed to be committed to the LSC's aims if the same stagnation is not to occur again.
"We are just moving toward the birthright promised to my generation."
Forecasts of a slowing down in the British economy against a background of increasing demand will raise questions about long-term funding, posing difficult questions about who pays for education.
The balance between contributions from the state, individuals and employers will have to be reviewed, even if education remains a priority for government spending.
He said: "We have to be clear about the clouds on the horizon. Education is expensive and has to be funded. Costs are rising and we have ambitious targets for participation and we have more young people coming into our sector."
He said qualifications need to be reviewed, and questioned why people are tested at the ages of 16, 17 and 18. He called for less emphasis on essay-writing, with assessment based more closely on their ability to demonstrate the skills they have learned.
Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, told delegates fewer qualifications, made up of a smaller units of learning, would simplify the process. The QCA, he promised, would get to grips with the practicalities of reforming vocational qualifications rather than calling for "parity of esteem".
He said: "Parity of esteem is the most useless and nonsensical term used in education today."
If the whole qualification system is not overhauled, he said:
"Qualifications, at best, will be irrelevant and, at worst, a debilitating influence."
John Healey, economic secretary to the Treasury, used the conference platform to promise a more hands-off approach by the Government, with increased decision-making at regional level.
He described the approach as "New Localism", saying "We recognise better the limits of what central government can do. Today it is not possible to deliver public seminars on the basis of one size fits all."