Schools have improved steadily during the past decade despite last year's sharp increase in the number which were failing and in poor lessons for secondary pupils, the chief inspector said this week.
In his annual report, David Bell said he was confident that education in England was getting better and that year-on-year changes in performance were not as important as long-term trends.
Mr Bell said he believed that recent changes would lead to further improvements. However, one in 10 schools was not progressing fast enough.
The gap between the best and the worst-performing schools and the effects of social class are the biggest barriers to all pupils reaching their potential.
The chief inspector put himself on a collision course with Tony Blair by insisting the Government must scrap A-levels and GCSEs if it is serious about tackling educational disadvantage.
The Prime Minister has made it clear he believes both exams should be retained.
Mr Bell said ministers should adopt the proposals of his predecessor Mike Tomlinson in full if they wanted to address the "historic imbalance" towards the brightest pupils.
Vocational courses have already helped to engage the "missing" 40 per cent of youngsters who fail to achieve at least five Cs or better at GCSE.
Mr Bell said more needs to be done to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged young people.
"It is important that the symbolism of change is seen across the system. If we do not say this is a sea change in the education system then we miss a great opportunity," he said.
He attacked those who claim the education system has been dumbed down.
"(They) are only interested in those at the top end of the scale and are paying lip service to having an education system that meets the needs of all."
Steve Sinnott, National Union of Teachers' general secretary, described Mr Bell's focus on disadvantaged pupils as a "breakthrough in thinking".
"This is the first time the chief inspector has explicitly recognised the impact of social class on children's achievement," he said.
The report revealed that the number of schools judged to be failing increased by 30 per cent to 216 in 2003-4. But the total number in special measures increased more slowly, by 18 per cent to 332, because those schools were recovering more quickly.
Mr Bell said that the increase was a result of changes to the inspection system which require schools to meet higher standards.
Expectations will continue to rise under the new inspection system to be introduced in September. "I make no apologies for raising the bar," he said.
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "The report makes clear (that) the increase in the number of schools in special measures does not reflect a drop in standards."
The report also highlights the staffing difficulties faced by some schools - particularly those in disadvantaged areas.
This has contributed to an increase in the number of unsatisfactory secondary lessons from 5 per cent in 200203 to 9 per cent a year later.
The proportion of unsatisfactory primary lessons remains unchanged at 3 per cent.
Mr Bell praised measures introduced by the Government to ensure standards continue to rise including a "strong cadre" of headteachers and improvements in early-years care and education.
But he expressed concern about school discipline. Behaviour remains unsatisfactory at one in 10 secondary schools, he said, and the number where it is good or better has fallen to about two-thirds from three quarters when Labour came to power.
Mr Bell said the standard of teaching has improved during that period and that other factors such as parents and children's lifestyles must be to blame.
THE REPORT IN BRIEF
* The number of schools placed in special measures increased by 30 per cent in 200304. By the end of 200304 there were 332 failing schools
* Two major problems are holding pupils back: the impact of social class and inconsistent school and college performance
* 1,000 schools are not improving enough between inspections
* There has been no drop in the proportion of schools where behaviour is unsatisfactory - but serious incidents remain rare
* Attendance is unsatisfactory in a quarter of primaries, despite a small improvement, and there has been a slight rise in secondary unauthorised absence
* There is a long-term trend of improvement in education
* The education and care of young children is improving
* There is too much variation in the quality of primary teaching across subjects
* Secondaries urgently need to tackle the literacy and numeracy of Year 7 pupils who failed to reach the target standard at primary school
* Critics who say higher exam results are the result of dumbing down only care about educating the elite