The Prime Minister hit a raw nerve with headteachers and opposition parties this week when he demanded new efforts to raise reading standards in primary schools.
He made his call during a speech on the future of inner cities to the right-wing Social Market Foundation.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I find it ironic that the Prime Minister should be talking about the importance of children being able to read properly at a time when his own ministers have abandoned the Reading Recovery scheme."
The speech by Mr Major was the first he has given on the inner cities since he became Prime Minister four and a half years ago.
He called for a drive by schools to involve parents in setting new educational targets for achievement and discipline. "How many children can read at the age of eight? Shouldn't schools know?" he asked. He promised to announce the first pilot schemes for targets "building on the Parent's Charter" later this year.
But his remarks came in for attack from Labour who accused him of stealing the Opposition's agenda. David Blunkett, education spokesman, said: "John Major has realised that we have set the agenda. Schools should set targets. That is precisely what Labour authorities like Birmingham, Lewisham and Barnsley are already doing."