Ministers may be ready to trumpet their success in raising school standards at the next election, but according to a report published this week, the education system is still nothing short of a "national disaster".
The Betrayed Generations - Standards in British Schools 1950-2000 takes teachers, politicians and local education authorities to task for what its author, Dr John Marks, describes as "a system in which too many children are condemned to a life of failure".
Dr Marks has a long history of antagonising left-wing and liberal educationists. In the early 1980s he published studies suggesting that pupils did better in grammar and secondary modern schools than they did in comprehensives. He was also a supporter of the national curriculum tests introduced in the early Nineties, serving on both the National Curriculum Council and the School Examinations and Assessment Authority.
He is now secretary of the education group of the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank. In his latest report, published by the CPS, he uses data from national curriculum tests, GCSEs and A-levels, as well as from overseas, to argue that average standards of pupil attainment are unacceptable. Despite lower class sizes, more money and a rise in the numbers staying on in education, "even in the most basic elements of education - the ability to read and to calculate - standards in Britain are far too low", he says.
Overall, while seven-year-olds were slightly ahead of expected standards, by age 11 children were around a year behind. By 14 the gap had risen to two years. This is compounded by variations between schools. The averge reading age of 14-year-olds can vary by as much as five years - even in schools of similar type in the same area, the report says.
As well as "trendy" teaching methods, Dr Marks blames the abolition of the 11-plus and the introduction of the GCSE for the system's ills.
He argues that the rate of A-level improvement in England and Wales slowed after the introduction of comprehensive schools in 1969. Dr Marks estimates that, by 1985, an additional 60,000 pupils would have been achieving good O-levels and as many as 80,000 extra 18-year-olds would be gaining A-level passes.
Although the introduction of GCSEs did boost results, the report argues that this was because the new exams were easier to pass - not because standards had risen.
And it suggests the same thing is happening with national curriculum tests. Many of the questions are too easy and the levels of attainment are too imprecise to make them a reliable way of measuring standards over time.
"This Government has failed to introduce rigorous reading and arithmetic tests for seven-year-olds. It should do so - and publish the results for each school so that parents can know which schools are performing adequately," the report says.
Ministers are also criticised for their pledge to cut class sizes for five to seven-year-olds. Dr Marks asserts that the evidence shows that it will make little difference and complains that the effect of the scheme is not even being monitored.
However, he is unable to evaluate the Government's performance so far as most of the data he uses on school performance is at least three years old.
"The Betrayed Generations - Standards in British Schools 1950-2000" can be obtained from the Centre for Policy Studies. Tel 0207 222 4488 www.cps.org.uk