The reputation of Britain's state education system took another heavy knock yesterday as figures showed that secondary schools have tumbled down an international league table of reading and maths standards.
Figures from the OECD, measured over the past six years, showed that mathematics standards among 15-year-olds have plummeted, with 16 countries overtaking Britain since 2000, including Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. The UK has fallen from eighth to 24th place in the international league table.
Standards in reading have also slipped, with the UK falling behind 10 countries, among them Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan. Britain fell from seventh to 17th place.
In both subjects, UK pupils were close to the OECD average, but children in countries such as Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Canada were significantly above average. Korea and Finland were top-placed for reading skills, and Taiwan did best in the maths tests.
The findings prompted warnings yesterday that the UK economy would suffer if today's teenagers are not being taught basic subjects properly. The figures are based on tests taken by 400,000 teenage students in 57 countries, and assessed by the Paris-based Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the OECD.
Results are published every three years, but the UK did not participate in 2003, so yesterday's comparison was with the unusually good results achieved by UK students in 2000.
The bad news follows other indications that standards in UK schools are slipping when measured against international competitors. Last week, Pisa released its findings on science, which showed that the UK had dropped from fourth place in 2000 to between 12th and 18th place.
And Boston College, in the US, published a survey of reading standards among five- to 10-year-olds, which showed that England had fallen from third to 19th place, and Scotland from 14th to 26th place, since the previous survey in 2001.
The study also indicated that British primary school pupils feel less safe at school than children of the same age in countries such as Iran, Russia and Morocco.
The Government has suggested that the comparisons with 2000 were not the main point, and emphasised that the findings suggest British schools are still above the OECD average overall. The Schools minister, Jim Knight, said: "It is pleasing the Pisa report reflects students having strong attitudes towards the importance of mathematics and English. Numeracy and literacy are the foundation of a good education and the reforms we are already driving forward will ensure pupils continue to achieve the core skills they need in life."
Other commentators suggested the drop in the UK's international standing was a severe blow to the Government and bad news for the future of the economy. "How can the UK hope to compete economically if our young people are not as well-educated as those in other countries?" said Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society.
"Science and mathematics are essential to our economic well-being, yet we are seeing the UK stumble down the world rankings."