"Overall our performance is not good and it's particularly poor in maths, " Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University, told a conference on international education last week. "In maths we're already in the second division and slipping into the third."
He told around 200 teachers and education officials at the Home Lessons from Abroad conference in London, that the world is changing very quickly.
Singapore now enjoys a living standard close to Britain's, and other so-called Asian tiger economies are catching up.
Looking to other countries is a fairly new idea, Professor Reynolds told the conference. The British have tended to look back to the past rather than overseas - but the modern world economy is forcing us to compare what we are doing with what goes on abroad. Modern multinational companies can pick and choose where to invest, and it depends to a large extent on the skills available. Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett told the conference that the chief executive of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank recently said his company had no fewer than 68 different education systems to recruit from.
Writer and broadcaster Martin Jacques focused on one Asian tiger, Taiwan. An agrarian country in the 1950s, its gross domestic product grew at around 10 per cent a year in most of the following two decades and is still growing at around 6 per cent a year, three times that of the UK.
The Taiwanese, crucially, put most resources into primary education. An egalitarian and meritocratic approach, rooted deep in the Confucian mentality, led to the current situation in which children, and their parents, take education incredibly seriously. Typically of the "tiger" nations of the Pacific Rim, they work much longer hours than their Western counterparts, have fewer holidays and approach examinations with almost religious zeal.
The Taiwanese outlook, encouraging social cohesion and intense competition for places in higher education, sets Taiwan apart from Britain, Mr Jacques said. The conference was repeatedly reminded that we cannot adopt policies wholesale from other countries where the cultural and political traditions are entirely different. And the approach to education in the countries involved does not conform to "traditional" or "progressive" stereotypes.
In Taiwan, apparently, children are expected to shout answers out in class rather than putting up their hands. And teachers are quite happy to question one child at length rather than spreading the questioning around the class.
Cherry-picking from the best Taiwan and other Pacific Rim countries offer may aid British teachers, speakers suggested.
Yet the Taiwanese, the conference heard, are now worried that their education system focuses far too much on mechanical rote-learning. They are looking to the West for ways to encourage more imagination and creativity into their classrooms.