Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said many pupils were "walking away" from schools because their courses were uninspiring.
He said that too often schools, councils and the police tried to address the symptoms of demotivation and truancy, by "chasing pupils around the city centre in kiddie-catchers" and jailing the parents of truants.
Instead, they should consider whether the curriculum could be an underlying cause of disaffection, he told a conference on pupil data in London.
Mr Waters told The Education Network conference: "For too many young people, the last thing the curriculum does is inspire and challenge. That's why so many young people walk away from school."
Courses needed to be designed around the needs of all young people, he said. Frequently, this was restricted to tailoring teaching for gifted and talented pupils, and for those with special educational needs.
"What about the traveller children, the looked-after children, the refugee children, the asylum-seeker children, the children who are carers, who are self-harmers, who are pregnant?" he asked.
"Somehow we have to find a curriculum which will work around their needs, rather than stretch the children to fit the curriculum. I think we have got a real challenge there."
On truancy, he said: "We chase pupils around the city centre, we put parents in prison.
"What we need to...(know is) what it is that we need to put in place to get these children in schools to benefit from the learning that's provided."
Mr Waters, who has been leading QCA attempts to consider what a future curriculum should look like, suggested that the authority could partly be to blame, by changing courses every five years or so without taking a longer-term view of what was needed.
The national curriculum of 1988, designed around a model of schooling which dated back to 1904, had been too subject-based, he suggested. The QCA wanted to help schools adopt more cross-subject teaching.
He also delivered a coded attack on the Government's data-driven approach to education, warning that councils sometimes needed to remember that pupils were "people, not data sources".