TWO of the country's most senior educationists this week warned of a growing achievement gap between Britain's best and worst secondary schools.
But in response schools minister David Miliband claimed the difference in pupil achievement within schools was a greater problem and blamed poor teaching.
In speeches to the North of England education conference in Warrington, Carol Adams, the chief executive of England's General Teaching Council, and former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson gave hard-hitting verdicts on the Government's record on tackling disaffection and disadvantage.
Ms Adams called on ministers to launch a national retention strategy, with golden handcuff pay incentives for teachers working in challenging schools, following findings that one in three teachers wants to quit within five years.
In a survey of 70,000 teachers, carried out for the GTCE and the Guardian newspaper, more than half said their morale was lower than when they joined the profession. They blamed workload, government interference and poor pupil behaviour. One in three said they would not consider a career in teaching if they had their time again.
Ms Adams told the conference that schools with middle-class intakes had fewer problems attracting and keeping staff because they had better-behaved pupils, were more popular with parents and often had greater autonomy from Government. She said: "The incentive is for teachers to move to a school at the top half of the pyramid and this is likely to continue to create teacher shortages."
Teaching in the most challenging schools should be viewed as the "pinnacle" of the profession, she said, with money made available to fund extra salaries, sabbaticals and training for those prepared to work in them.
"We are already witnessing the serious social consequences if we don't get this right - an increasingly disaffected, socially excluded group of young adults."
Commenting on the survey findings, recruitment expert Professor John Howson said figures suggesting that more than a third of teachers with six to 10 years' service want to leave were the most worrying.
"These are the people we would expect to be the backbone of the profession, being groomed for leadership," he said.
Mid-career teachers have endured the economically stringent last years of the Conservative government and initiative overload in the first two years of New Labour, he said. And they missed out on pound;6,000 training bursaries, pound;4,000 golden hellos, returners' bonuses and discounted housing.
Mr Tomlinson told the conference that, while the gap between the highest and lowest performing primary schools had narrowed in recent years, for secondary schools it had widened. One in 20 pupils left school with no GCSEs, while an extra 10,000 went missing from secondary rolls.
Underachievement was rife in urban secondaries and among African-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils.
In his speech to conference, Mr Miliband acknowledged that young people still lived in a "world scarred by disadvantage". But he said pupil performance varied much more within schools than between them. He told the conference that poor teaching costs children the equivalent of a year's education.
"At the moment, within-school variation in pupil performance is four times greater than variation between schools.
"This partly reflects all-ability intakes. But the different approaches of individual teachers account for some 30 per cent of this variation - roughly equivalent to a year's education for those students with the best teachers compared to the worst."
He said the best teachers suffered from "false modesty" and pledged to improve the quality of professional development. Schools were urged to make better use of computer technology and to set individual targets for pupils.
Damian Green and Phil Willis, education spokesmen for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively, earned ovations after hitting out at target-setting in education. Both have now published blue prints calling for less central control.