The UK faces an embarrassing slide down the international league table for skills, despite the extra millions of pounds invested in training.
If current trends continue, the country faces being ranked 23rd out of 32 states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for low level skills and 21st for intermediate skills in 2020, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is expected to reveal next Thursday.
Higher level skills provide the only good news, with Britain expected to climb to 10th place from 12th. However, even that falls short of a position in the top eight, which Lord Leitch suggested in his 2006 review of skills constitutes a "world class" performance.
The commission is due to recommend replacing the Leitch targets - based on the UK's performance alone - with progress measured against international competitors.
It is expected to set out priorities to speed up the rate of progress and improve the UK's international standing in skills, and to argue that the lack of demand from employers for skills needs as much attention as the supply from training providers.
Some of the Leitch targets are likely to be missed anyway: the commission has said that by 2020 the UK will fail to ensure 90 per cent of adults have level 2 qualifications (equivalent to five good GCSEs) or that 68 per cent of adults have level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications.
The 40 per cent target for adults gaining degree-level qualifications is expected to be met, however, as is the target for 95 per cent achieving functional literacy, but the numeracy target is likely to be missed.
Relative measures of progress against the top eight nations are likely to present an even bigger challenge than the Leitch targets. Chris Humphries, the commission's chief executive, said the money spent on training was working, but other nations were progressing faster than the UK.
"We are going backwards," he said. "We have improved a bit at upper secondary attainment, a bit at tertiary attainment. But most other nations have improved more and gone further than us. We have improved against our own history but gone backwards on a relative basis."
To boost the UK's international standing, the commission is expected to set out three priorities:
- to speed up the response to employers' demand for skills, by slashing the time it takes to launch new qualifications or apprenticeships from about three years to less than 12 months;
- to maximise individuals' opportunities to gain skills, by examining international best practice on employer engagement and researching how to integrate training for those at risk of social exclusion; and
- to increase employers' ambitions, by advising them how best to make use of skills to improve productivity and recommending action to improve management skills.
The experience in Scotland, where skill levels have risen to third highest in the UK - after London and the South East - but where productivity still trails behind, has shown that increasing the supply of qualifications is not enough.
Richard Wainer, head of education and skills policy at the Confederation of British Industry, said advice and support in making the most of skills would be welcomed, as long as company bosses were free to run businesses as they saw fit.
Britain should also learn more from the rest of the world, and from the devolved education systems, to try to implement policy in the best way possible, Mr Humphries said.
The UK is recognised worldwide as an innovator in education policy, with initiatives such as national vocational qualifications, national occupational standards and the concept of lifelong learning, he said. But while Britain pioneers policies, which are initially bureaucratic and unwieldy to implement, others have adapted and refined the UK's ideas to surge ahead.
"We have been reluctant to draw as much from elsewhere, even the home nations," Mr Humphries said.
It is a long-standing criticism: a report in 2005 by the Learning and Skills Development Agency said that Britain was failing to evaluate the relative success of the policies of the devolved administrations.
Mr Humphries said attitudes were changing and recent willingness to exchange ideas, even with administrations of different political views, had been "amazing".
Editorial, page 6.