He said that further education, once the Cinderella of the education system, had now moved to centre stage. In higher education, student numbers had doubled since 1979. These were figures which would have seemed impossible 50 years ago.
Mr Patten was speaking at a conference in London celebrating the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, piloted by R A (Rab) Butler.
The minister said that in 1950 only 10 per cent of children went on to receive education after 16.
By 1980 that figure had reached 40 per cent. Now, more than 70 per cent of 16- year-olds continued in full- time education. And in 1992, one in three young people progressed to higher education.
'These are remarkable figures, but there is still unfinished business,' Mr Patten said. Britain still lagged behind other countries in the 16-18 age group.
He said illiteracy among young adults was as high now as it was in 1982.
'A worrying number of schools are still mediocre,' Mr Patten added. This was despite Britain spending more of its GNP on education than Germany or Japan.
He predicted that the Government's reforms in education would eventually be seen as being as far-reaching as the 1944 Act.
In an apparent reference to the recent remarks by the Prince of Wales, who attacked political incorrectness, Mr Patten said: 'We live in a hard world. I hope I shall not be thought politically incorrect if I say that children need to be taught to work hard, to be competitive, and to care.
'We shall flourish only if we can educate and train our native talent as well as - or better than - our competitors,' Mr Patten said.