The system should be dramatically overhauled to resemble the selective system favoured by the Swiss, says the report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a right-wing think tank.
A comparison of the two countries based on maths and science tests taken by 13- and 14-year-olds showed that English schools had between two and three times more low achievers. Swiss pupils also achieved higher average scores.
The researchers conducted the study over two years, visiting classrooms, vocational colleges and firms. They found that English pupils' greatest weakness was arithmetic "but their shortfall in other branches of mathematics, for example geometry, was also substantial''.
It is estimated that English schools allocate a quarter more teaching time to science than the Swiss. But the institute blames the way the subject is taught for pupils' lower level of attainment. "The most fundamental difference is the degree of guidance given to pupils by the teacher,'' it states.
The study found Swiss science teachers were more likely to demonstrate experiments to their pupils followed by questions and class discussion. "In England, greater emphasis is placed on pupils' own experiments intended to help them discover scientific principles for themselves."
The authors, Helvia Bierhoff and Sig Prais, criticise the English "intellectualised approach'' to technology within the national curriculum. Flaws in the British system, they conclude, have compounded the country's skill shortage. They claim that only a fifth of those school-leavers who do not go on to university have the essential basic skills required for entry to vocational courses at craft level (NVQ level 3) compared to about half in Switzerland.
Professor Prais said Britain should switch to the model used predominantly in Switzerland, where pupils are streamed after the age of 12 according to their ability.
"A fundamental flaw in the English system is that the emphasis is placed on individualistic, investigative discovery and problem solving. It's based on the notion that the teacher is to co-operate with individual pupils or small groups so that learning activities develop out of discussion between them.
"In practice, with 20-30 children in a class, insufficient time is available for a teachers to deal adequately with pupils, even in small groups. It is the weaker pupils who suffer most . . . and who are failed by the system.''