Britain's biggest educational weakness is that its workforce lacks the basic skills to kept the country competitive, says the report of a skills audit carried out for the Competitiveness White Paper.
The report appears to blame schools more than colleges and other training providers. While the audit suggests the UK is closing the gap, it also says that some countries, notably Germany, are taking a significant lead in ensuring that their workers are literate, numerate and equipped with a range of "flexible" skills.
The audit suggests the UK is weakest at intermediate level (A-level and equivalent). There are improvements, says the report on the audit which was carried out by Michael Heseltine's Cabinet Office competitiveness unit. But then "skills levels are improving in all the countries covered".
The evidence has been greeted with little surprise by leading educationists who argue that constant comparisons with other countries were at worst "meaningless" and at best "a distraction" from the goals the UK should set itself.
Professor Alan Smithers, head of Brunel University centre for education and employment studies, said: "We are in danger of getting vexed with data which tells us little or nothing. I could go into the National Gallery and rate all the French paintings, grading them one to ten, against the Flemish ones and conclude that one country produced better paintings than another. But what does that tell you about anything?" There was a value in international comparisons but they should be treated cautiously, he added. Too often, the sample sizes rendered comparison meaningless. Sometimes they simply did not compare like with like.
A recent report by the Further Education Funding Council on Germany showed that advances were in jeopardy because employers were reluctant to continue funding the expensive education-training system. Germany's glittering success - it has already achieved the UK's target for the year 2000 - is beginning to fade. It faces a 12 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships for school-leavers.
Commenting on the report, FEFC chief inspector Terry Melia said: "While there is no room for complacency, we should be aware of the fact that other countries face serious problems."
The skills audit could also do the Tories more harm than good. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard had questioned the wisdom of publishing a potentially damning report in the run up to a general election.