A sharply critical report from the Government's own advisers takes ministers to task for failing to have any single body with executive powers in charge of national strategies for improvement.
Progress towards six targets to raise standards of education in schools, colleges and the workplace has slowed significantly this year, the report from the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets shows.
It was immediately seized upon by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman. "The Government has failed to raise standards sufficiently, which is why it is crucial our plans for targets from primary school onwards are implemented," he said.
The council insists the slowdown is a recent problem. Good progress over 10 years had seen the number of 19-year-olds with five GCSEs at grade A-C rising from 47 per cent to 68 per cent, said Peter Davis, NACETT chairman.
"But progress over the past 12 months has been slower than required, if we are to reach the national targets, as we must," he warned.
The council's report points to the range of national bodies endorsing the targets, including local authorities and training and enterprise councils. "However, NACETT remains concerned that no one body has overall responsibility for leading all this work or for ensuring that the UK achieves the national targets by the year 2000."
The council was never given the executive powers for this task when it was set up by the Government, which is resolutely opposed to central planning. Now it is pressing the Government to take action.
The NACETT report calls for a radical action plan, which would involve schools and colleges setting local targets and employers spending more on training and the Investors in People programme. "Failure would further damage our competitiveness and would inevitably affect our economic performance and the prosperity of our people," the advisers say.
Six goals, known as foundation and lifetime learning targets, were set by the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress five years ago. They were later accepted by ministers who last year agreed to make them tougher. There are indications that these may be too tough.
The foundation targets most affect schools and colleges. The first says 85 per cent of young people should get five GCSEs grade A-C by age 19. Target two says 75 per cent should reach national vocational qualification level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in basic skills such as literacy and numeracy by 19, and 35 per cent should reach level 3 (A-level) in these skills by 21.
Target three aims for 60 per cent of 21-year-olds to have achieved at least two full A-levels or equivalent (NVQ level 3). Last year, only 44 per cent reached this level.
Reaching the targets was now tough, but not impossible, says the council. But to do so, at least a million adults must gain A-levels or equivalent every year. And similarly with three targets for lifetime learning, which focus on adults and the workplace, 330,000 new graduates are needed every year for four years, and more investment in training is needed from employers.
The report comes as a further embarrassment to Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, whose recent audit of skills among school-leavers and the workforce showed the UK falling behind international competitors.
Latest figures from the DFEE also show a slowdown in growth of 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training. Participation rates at 16 have dropped since 1993 when the proportion in full-time study or training peaked at 72.6 per cent. Last year, it fell to 70.7 per cent.
The drop-out rate at 17 is even sharper, from a high of 79 per cent in 1993 to just over 71 per cent. This inevitably puts pressure on schools, colleges and training organisations to achieve even higher success rates with those who remain.