Thirty years ago British secondary schools were among the best in the world.
Our 16-year-olds left school with far more qualifications than children in France and many other Western nations. Although countries such as the United States and Germany could point to better results, Britain's overall performance was impressive.
Since then standards have improved, driven by initiatives from ministers.
But the news from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) yesterday was that the rest of the world is outstripping us.
In little less than a generation, Britain has slumped from 13th of 30 industrialised countries to 21st. Now, according to the OECD, which looked at the exam results of people aged between 25 and 60, comparatively fewer British children leave school with five top-grade GCSE passes than their overseas peers.
Britain still rules the roost in higher education. In fact, students with a British degree are more highly rewarded financially for their qualification than those in most other countries. But the slump in the performance of secondary schools - allied to the low numbers staying on in education after the age of 16 - means that Britain faces a rise in unemployment as more low-skilled jobs disappear from the market.
It also highlights a growing gap between the highest achievers and those who drop out of education at 16 - casting doubt over whether the Government will meet its aim of getting 50 per cent of students into higher education by the end of the decade.
The fall in the performance of secondary schools in comparison with other nations has been gradual but relentless.
It has also led to an even worse performance in a table showing the number of youngsters who stay on at school - Britain is ranked 23rd out of 29 countries, based on figures from 2001.
The rising stars are in the east - Korea has leapt from 24th place to top the table of overall performance. Japan has gone from 11th to second - and their success has been attributed by academics to a more formal and disciplined approach to basic literacy.
The OECD has one of the most comprehensive tracking systems of education performance across the Western world - and looks at how standards have changed over a generation. Politicians from all sides acknowledged that the OECD was the worldwide authority on measuring education performance.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This shows we have got to improve standards at a faster rate - otherwise we will just be continually falling behind the performance of other nations.
"As far as the issue of staying-on rates is concerned, it just demonstrates we are light years away from encouraging enough youngsters to continue in full-time education after 16."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "This just emphasises the need for a better qualifications structure so that students who aren't currently achieving success have something better to aim for."
Conservatives laid the blame for the decline at the failure to develop high quality vocational courses for 14 to 19-year-olds - a move which many academics agree would inspire more bored youngsters to remain in full-time education.
Damian Green, the Tory education spokesman, said last night: "Our system of vocational education lags behind the rest of Europe, and despite their stated aims, the Government has yet to plug the skills gap this report highlights."
Only Mexico, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovakia and Turkey have worse staying-on rates than the 74.7 per cent achieved by the UK.
Britain's position at 21st in the table means that only 68 per cent of youngsters aged 25 to 34 are achieving five top-grade GCSE passes. That compares with 95 per cent in Korea, 85 per cent in Germany and 73 per cent in France.
The picture is in marked contrast to a dramatic improvement in the numbers going on into higher education - where the UK is seventh out of a poll of 16 countries, with 43 per cent participation.
Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis at the OECD, said: "The UK has been less successful in getting students up to the level of an upper secondary school qualification.
"It is widening the gap between those who are very well qualified and those who have not attained this basic level of secondary qualification.
"It does have quite serious implications for those who don't complete this upper secondary school level qualification. The economic consequences are quite serious. They will face market constraints on the number of jobs they can get."
Yesterday's report showed that the salary dividend of getting a degree in the UK was higher than in other countries, with 30 to 44-year-olds without a degree likely to earn only 68 per cent of the salary of someone with a higher education qualification. They were also six times more likely to be unemployed.
Dr Schleicher said: "You can see enormous success in producing high-level [graduate] skills but a lack of success in getting everyone up to the basic foundations."
Britain also fared badly when it came to comparing spending per student in the various countries. It was one of a minority of countries where the amount spent - both in primary and secondary schooling and higher education - was lower in 2000 than five years previously. The position was most marked in higher education where - because of growing student numbers - spending was only 91 per cent of what it had been in 1995.
Alan Johnson, the minister for Higher Education, seized on the figures in the report yesterday as supporting the Government's proposals to charge students higher fees.
"Today's OECD report makes clear why the principle of graduate contribution is correct," he said. "Our universities have one of the best success rates amongst our competitors and one of the highest graduate premiums.
"Our higher education is clearly a success story and so it is fair to ask those graduates who benefit exclusively from such advantages to contribute something extra."
However, he acknowledged that "not everything is easy reading". He said: "Our higher education system may be one of the most successful in the world but our ability to get people there is lacking.
"Birth not worth still determines what sort of opportunities you get in life.
"We have too many youngsters dropping out after compulsory education and this is one of the major barriers to widening participation."
TOP PERFORMERS SOUTH KOREA
South Korea's rapid rise to the top of the world education tree appears to have its roots in social and cultural attitudes.
A study for Ofsted, the education watchdog, analysed the country's improved performance in maths. Inspectors spoke of how teachers there enjoyed a high status, parents had high aspirations and pupils were therefore expected to do well at school.
The Korean system, according to David Reynolds, a former senior government adviser on maths, adopted a "can do" attitude to learning basic skills. No child was thought incapable of attaining basic standards.
The approach mirrors the Government's compulsory literacy hour and daily maths lesson in schools, introduced after Professor Reynolds studied Seoul's approach.
Other features of the Korean system include more time spent on whole-class instruction - in which the teacher tests whether pupils have grasped information - rather than letting pupils work alone.
They are kept in school until they have completed their tasks successfully and held back a year if they fail to master the basics. Children of primary school age are taught by subject specialists rather than by one teacher for all subjects.
One thing is certain. The improvement is not down to class size. South Korea (and Japan, another of the nations to see a swift rise up the tables) have not achieved their success through smaller class sizes. Yesterday's report shows that they are two out of only three nations to have larger primary school class sizes than Britain, which has an average of 26 pupils per class.
Another factor in South Korea's success may be a massive increase in investment in education, particularly from the private sector. South Korea has the largest share of private-sector investment in its education system of any OECD country, with 40 per cent of the total budget coming from private sources. This compares with 14 per cent in Britain.Reuse content