Ministers' desire to control how teachers go about their jobs is putting at risk the educational improvements of the past decade, a report published today warns.
The centralisation of decision-making power has reduced teachers' ability to respond to the needs of the most challenging pupils, according to the National Commission on Education.
The concentration by ministers on short-term improvements has damaged teacher professionalism and led to too much emphasis being placed on "narrow" test results, it says.
Learning to succeed: the next decade is the second report of the commission. Its first, published in 1993, highlighted young adults' poor literacy skills and had a big impact on the development of Labour's policy in opposition.
Writing in today's TES, Sir John Cassells, director of the commission, says: "If there is one over-arching message that keeps coming through, it is this: the concentration of educational decision-making at the centre has led to a situation where 'command and control' dominates, and this has now reached a point where it is seriously counter-productive."
A clear distinction needs to be made between the strategic aims set by ministers and the practical means of achieving them, he says.
The report calls for a "transformation" in the education of the 40 per cent of young people who under-achieve at school.
The growing gap between their future life chances and those of their peers is "unacceptable".
It highlights a "disappointing lack of progress" in many secondary schools in the decade since its first report.
"The lowest achievers have been the most resistant to the Government's standards agenda, and this persistent problem has strong links to class.
Yet social class has scarcely been used over the past 10 years for analysis and policy-making, while the much less significant factor of gender differential is chewed over endlessly," the report says.
Parental choice and competition between schools for pupils have helped to marginalise the most disadvantaged children.
A rethink of the "inappropriate curriculum which has not been fundamentally re-thought for a century" is needed to re-engage disaffected learners, the commission argues.
Improvements in teachers' skills, more emphasis on teaching children to learn and better use of resources at all levels of the education system are all needed if today's pupils are to receive the education they will need to cope with changes in work and living patterns in the coming decades.
The report points out that 600,000 children under the age of three live in poverty and warns that improving living standards of the disadvantaged is "the most effective lever" to reduce underachievement.
Not all the commission's findings are gloomy, however. It welcomes the expansion of nursery provision, further and higher education and praises improvements made by primary schools.