In a new report, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also warns that the current education system – with its focus on school league tables – fosters a “cult of the average”, too often failing to stretch the most able or support the children who need most help.
It said that the system has led to schools becoming exam factories and emphasised the need for education to produce more “rounded and grounded” young people.
With the school-leaving age rising to 18 in the next few years, the CBI suggests that the focus of the exam system should be moved to 18, with “rigorous and stretching” standards for both academic and vocational A levels – and maths and English retained until 18 for both.
Other proposals include a shift away from exam league tables to new Ofsted reports that assess academic rigour and the “broader behaviours and attitudes” that youngsters need to get on in life, and more freedom for teachers to tailor their teaching to the needs of each child.
It also recommends that headteachers should be given full control of performance assessment, reward, improvement plans and, where necessary, dismissal.
The CBI study, published last week and entitled First steps: A new approach for our schools, is based on detailed discussions with business leaders, teachers, school leaders and academics.
John Cridland, director-general of the CBI, said that in recent years some secondary schools have become an “exam factory”.
“We have some great teachers and average grades are rising, but we’ve been kidding ourselves about overall standards,” said Mr Cridland.
“By teaching to the test, too many young people’s individual needs are not being met, and they are being failed by the system.
“Government reforms are heading in the right direction, but are not sufficient on their own and must go further and faster. As well as academic rigour, we need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “No school should settle for second best – and every one of our reforms is designed to drive up standards so all children have a first-class education.
“The CBI rightly recognises the importance of English and maths, calls for greater rigour in the curriculum and in exams, welcomes the academy programme, wants a new accountability system and backs greater freedom for teachers.
“These are all part of the government’s package of reforms that will give England’s education system the thorough overhaul it needs.”
First steps: A new approach for our schools can be downloaded at www.cbi.org.uk/media/1845483/cbi_education_report_191112.pdf