The UK is falling behind international rivals because one-in-five children “learn nothing” throughout their secondary education, according to the head of Britain’s top private schools’ group.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said the chronic underachievement of the bottom 20 per cent of pupils was now the “biggest problem this country faces”.

He said that high-performing nations in the Far East and elsewhere in Europe were not bogged down by the same levels of educational failure witnessed in Britain.

Mr Lenon, the former headmaster of Harrow School, also said that the brightest pupils were not being sufficiently stretched by the curriculum or examinations system.

In his first interview since being appointed chairman of the ISC, which represents 1,234 fee-paying schools, he told how Harrow regularly recruited top pupils from Hong Kong who were two years ahead of British peers in maths.

Independent schools can help address the problems by sponsoring state academies and other projects such as staging master-classes in academic subjects, he said.

But the sector represents just eight per cent of schools nationally and it was “silly” to expect them to be the answer to deep-rooted problems, he said, insisting wider reform of the curriculum and exams system was necessary.

“The biggest problem that this country faces is the underachievement of the bottom 20 per cent of pupils, particularly boys, who appear to learn nothing at school after the age of 11,” he said.

“That’s the biggest challenge. But the [international] research is also pointing to the fact that those at the top end – the top 50 per cent academically – are not reaching the level that the top 50 per cent are reaching in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Finland.

“When I was the headmaster of Harrow, I recruited 15 to 20 boys a year from Hong Kong. In every case, they were two years ahead of English boys at maths.”

Figures show that almost one-in-five pupils left primary school this summer without reaching the standard expected of the average 11-year-old in reading. Some one-in-10 boys had the reading skills of a seven-year-old or worse.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Lenon said: “You do not get that same sort of tail of underachievement in countries like China, Japan and Finland.

“In other words, the contrast in achievements between the best and the worst is greater than in many other countries. It is this tail which is causing us to suffer slightly in terms of the international comparisons.”

Ministers have already unveiled plans to subject all six-year-olds to a new reading test to identify those struggling the most a young age.

They are also reviewing the National Curriculum and have pledged to toughen up GCSEs by axing bite-sized modules and benchmarking tests against those in the highest-performing education systems.

Mr Lenon said GCSEs were “not stretching enough for the very brightest”.

“I would not be surprised if one of the outcomes of the National Curriculum review is that some subjects like mathematics are made slightly more demanding,” he said.

“But you have got these two issues with subjects like maths.

“On the one hand, we need to be offering a public exam that will stretch our most able students so that we are up there with the Chinese and the Japanese.

“But more important than that, we need examinations in basic functional maths that every child is required to pass and a huge amount of effort goes into ensuring that bottom 20 per cent of boys achieves a good result in that basic functional maths.

“It is exactly the same with English; we want our most able students to be reading Shakespeare and Chaucer but more important than that is that our bottom 20 per cent of children know how to write and to speak well.”

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