A major report evaluating the past six years of school inspections in Wales represents a "damning verdict" on standards and progress, it was claimed this week.
Opposition politicians in the Assembly called for "serious" and "urgent" action to turn around Wales's "failing" education system after the annual chief inspector's report highlighted slow progress in school improvement and low levels of basic skills.
One in three schools underperformed and only 8 per cent gained top grades across all aspects of inspection, the report found.
Between 2004 and 2010, there were only modest increases in teacher assessment results at the end of key stages 1, 2 and 3, while the proportion of more able and talented pupils achieving above the expected level had actually fallen.
The report also highlighted a "dislocation" in how pupil progress in literacy and numeracy is tracked through the system, and found that some 40 per cent of pupils entering secondary school had basic skills gaps. Local authorities were criticised for poor strategic management and for failing to target their efforts on schools causing concern.
HM chief inspector Ann Keane said: "Now more than ever we need to face facts. We need to take bigger strides in improving the provision of education and training in Wales."
She said that while there was no need to revise the curriculum, a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy was needed at all levels, including specialist training for newly qualified teachers.
"We need more flexibility to drive innovation and embed skills," she said. "We must focus on these skills, not in arid exercises like more spelling, grammar or maths tests but in ways that engage pupils across the curriculum."
Ms Keane also said local authorities should work more co-operatively and share data about school performance, but that league tables and new targets were not the answer.
"I don't see much point in apportioning blame," she added. "I think we all have to look carefully at our respective roles in relation to this and take responsibility for what we can do in future."
Dr Philip Dixon, director of education union ATL Cymru, said the report raised a number of important questions for the future direction of Welsh education.
"It shows that there are centres of excellence in Wales and that we do know how to run successful schools and colleges, but it also shows that the sharing of that experience of excellence is still too patchy," he said.
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats accused the government of failing pupils. Paul Davies, Conservative shadow education minister, said: "This is a damning verdict on standards in Welsh schools in spite of the best efforts of our teachers."
Lib Dem education spokeswoman Jenny Randerson said: "The Estyn report shows that pupils are being left behind in terms of reading, writing, maths and science."
The report comes just one month after Wales's "disastrous" performance in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.
An Assembly government spokesman said: "We welcome Estyn's annual report, which shows we are making progress in most areas.
"We acknowledge there is still work to do to raise standards and will now consider the report in detail before preparing our response."
HIGHS AND LOWS
- Overall, standards of education and training maintained or improved since 2004.
- Greatest improvements in early-years provision and FE.
- Some significant improvements in individual settings such as schools and pupil referral units.
- Standards not as good as they should be in more than 30 per cent of schools.
- Too many learners of all ages and abilities not having their skills fully developed.
- Targets missed on attendance, Neets, class sizes and teacher assessments.