It's the teachers, stupid
The report by McKinsey, the global consultancy firm, says that well-intentioned school reforms have failed for decades in many countries despite massive spending increases, smaller class sizes and greater school autonomy - because they overlooked teachers.
Its conclusion came as Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, used the publication of her annual report to call for a renewed focus on "the craft of teaching" and a team of top education academics called for teachers to be given a real say in developing future education policy.
The McKinsey report, co-written by Sir Michael Barber, the former head of the Government's delivery unit and now an adviser to the Prime Minister, looks at what 11 of the world's best school systems have in common. It concludes: "The quality of an education system depends ultimately on the quality of its teachers."
The report contrasts four top performers - South Korea, where teachers come from the top 5 per cent of graduates, Finland (top 10 per cent), and Singapore and Hong Kong (top 30 per cent) - with the US, where the bottom third of graduates go into teaching. England is between the two extremes but improving because of better starting salaries and marketing.
The report, published to inform international debate, says success also depends on monitoring every child and ensuring raw recruits become effective teachers through practical initial training, coaching in schools, collaboration and mentoring and coaching by heads.
Ms Gilbert said the proportion of inadequate schools, though falling, was at 6 per cent "still far too high." Teachers were key to turning them round.
"Teaching and learning is absolutely fundamental to good schools," she told The TES. "I just worry that we have focused too much on other things and lost sight of the critical importance of that."
Ms Gilbert called for sabbaticals for teachers in disadvantaged schools. Her report found that most teaching was good but highlighted concerns about teachers' assessment skills, subject knowledge and teaching of basic skills.
"It cannot be right that 20 per cent of pupils leave primary school without a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy," she said.
The number of schools in special measures was up from 520 last year to 552, but inspectors had visited more schools. Improving behaviour was a key priority.
Academics at London University's Institute of Education, in a new book - Public Sector Reform: Principles for Improving the Education System - said further school improvement depended on the Government reaching "a new settlement" with teachers.
It should give them a genuine say in policy making and abandon its top-down approach.
Most schools 'good', pages 16 17
Michael Barber, page 28.