A startling warning that teenagers' ability in basic reading, writing and mathematics are at a crisis level in Northern Ireland has been heard at a conference on under-achievement.
Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education has published a survey of 250 young people aged between 16 and 17 in which only 14 per cent were good enough at reading, writing and maths, to be able to begin an NVQ level 2 course.
Of the total of 253 young people sent to the institute by the province's Training and Employment Agency, 165 had been identified as being suitable for NVQ level 2 on the basis of their schoolwork, but only 34 were deemed suitable.
Another 79 (31 per cent) were said to require further assessment and the remaining 55 per cent required immediate training in what is traditionally referred to as Three Rs work.
The institute is the largest provider in the province of Jobskills, a programme designed to prepare mainly young people for work that replaced the former Youth Training Programme.
Under the government targets for the year 2000, 85 per cent of young people should achieve an NVQ 2 or its equivalent by the age of 19.
Patrick Murphy, director of the institute, said: "The government regards NVQ level 2 or equivalent as the basic educational qualification to equip the country's workforce to develop an international competitive edge.
"If only one in seven of young people entering Jobskills have literacy and numeracy skills adequate for undertaking NVQ level 2, there is something seriously wrong with government thinking."
Speaking at a seminar during the annual conference of the province's five local education and library boards, he said: "Either the government has set its targets too high or it has failed to invest in the education system.
"The major division in Northern Ireland is not between unionists and nationalists but between the haves and have-nots and in educational terms the haves are well-funded but the have-nots are being abandoned".
Dr Murphy called on the politicians who gathered at Stormont this week to draw up a potential political settlement to address the issue of education.
He said the institute found an almost identical pattern last year.
In recent years, the government's policy of increased parental choice has widened the gap between grammar schools in Northern Ireland, which are still able to select pupils on the basis of ability, measured in the annual 11-plus, and the rest of the secondary sector.