Northern Ireland's selective system has damaged efforts to improve vocational education, claims a report published this week by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR).
Dr Leslie Caul, senior tutor at Stranmillis College of Education, says improving vocational education provision is important because of fears that political instability and increasing youth unemployment provide potential recruits to paramilitary organisations.
"The inherent weaknesses in vocational education are not unique to Northern Ireland, but are likely to have been exacerbated by an education system that has remained set firmly in a strongly academic framework, with the continued dominance of selective schools working often at the expense of a non-selective sector."
In a chapter in the three-volume report on equality, commissioned by the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Dr Caul argues that Northern Ireland relies on an extremely well-educated minority.
"This is reflected in an educational ethos dominated by elite grammar schools. Educational achievements that have been practical, technical and vocational have been traditionally undervalued" This system does not lend support to developing four years of vocational education before the age of 18, as in countries such as Sweden, Germany and Japan, or to equality of access to higher education for students from both vocational and academic routes.
"Such pipe dreams are at odds with the realities of an education system driven by a powerful academic emphasis and set of interests from existing providers, " he says.
Dr Caul found that in the years 1992-1994, Catholic school-leavers were consistently less likely than Protestants to find jobs and more likely to go into training.
"It is not possible to put the blame for Catholic unemployment onto Catholic unwillingness to 'invest' in human capital since more Catholics avail themselves of the training system at 16-18 years.
"However, the training system in Northern Ireland rests heavily on further education colleges and on workshop provision, and very little on opportunities in employer-led schemes.
"Thus, Catholic youth may find their opportunities for work limited even before consideration is given to the potentially sectarian nature of the location of available employment," Dr Caul adds.
A chapter by Dr Maura Sheehan and Mike Tomlinson, Queen's University, shows that people without qualifications are more likely to be unemployed, and for longer, than qualified people. But long-term unemployed people in West Belfast are more likely to hold qualifications than those elsewhere in Northern Ireland, and Catholics are better qualified than Protestants.
Policy Aspects of Employment Equality in Northern Ireland, Vol II in the series, is available for Pounds 14.99 from SACHR, Temple Court, 39 North Street, Belfast BT1 1NA.