Top industrialist Sir Dominic Cadbury this week called for a blitz on basic skills, claiming businesses were turning away scores of applicants ill-equipped for work.
Sir Dominic, chairman of the food and drinks giant Cadbury Schweppes and vice-chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the new exam superbody, said 170 of 200 people on a recent recruitment drive had failed key skills tests.
"If employers have one problem with the current education system, it's that too often we are running into an absence of crucial skills."
He was speaking at the launch of the QCA, which will oversee all academic and vocational qualifications in schools and colleges from October. Sir Dominic said: "In the market of today, people are not going to have a job if they have not got basic skills. And if you do not have the skills you are not going to be involved in working with new equipment."
Education minister Baroness Blackstone, also speaking at the launch, promised that one of the organisation's first tasks would be to help schools focus on literacy and numeracy.
She said the Government was committed to stability and planned no statutory changes to the under-14s curriculum until 2000. "Because of this, schools need concrete advice about how to give more priority to the basics within the current framework," she added.
She called for a new way of developing the curriculum, declaring: "We don't want the old-type consultation where worked-up proposals are produced, and then the world of education submits written comments just before the final version is announced."
Consultation was also promised by QCA chairman Sir William Stubbs. "We are not in the decision-making time," he said. He was currently appointing the QCA board ready to take over from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.