Ulster is now outstripping the rest of the UK in terms of formal exam results, but years of conflict and a mistrust of authority have created a generation of unemployable and semi-literate adults, say researchers.
GCSE and university entrance statistics are "unquestionably superior" to those in England, Scotland and Wales. However, many adults in their twenties and thirties were labelled educational failures, according to a new report from Warwick University.
"Educational successes in recent years haven't fed through to the adult population," says the author, John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Warwick. "The Irish education system 10 years ago did a lot of damage in branding people failures at an early age."
Today, teenagers in Northern Ireland's largely selective school system are likely to get better GCSE results than their peers in England and much less likely to leave without any qualifications.
In 1995, 51 per cent of Ulster's pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, compared with 44 per cent in the UKgenerally. Ulster has seen a dramatic reversal in numbers leaving school with no qualifications - from almost 30 per cent in 1981 to 4.4 per cent in 1995. This is largely because of the improved performance of Catholic secondary pupils.
Staying-on rates are also higher. In 1997, 77 per cent were still in full-time education, as against 63 per cent in England. Not only do more young people enter university than in England, the province has the highest proportion of entrants from working-class backgrounds.
In England, 70 per cent of undergraduates are from middle or upper-class homes, compared with 60 per cent in Northern Ireland. However, fewer Northern Irish adults take up training or education later in life.
Professor Field said: "An undeniable success story in recent years has been in the increasing numbers of working-class Catholics getting to university.
"But when you look at the adult population it's not such a glowing picture. The literacy rate is much lower in the Catholic community and that disparity gets worse the older you go.
"There is a massive divergence between young people with high levels of qualifications and adults with none. A quarter of the adult workforce has no formal qualifications. A huge learning divide cannot be helpful to the peace process."
Schooling in Ulster is still mostly segregated between the Protestant controlled schools and Catholic maintained schools.
Professor Field said: "Grammar schools on both sides are responsible for the national academic successes, but you also have to ask if a system which enables the few to flower and calls the rest failures is compatible with a culture of lifelong learning for all."
Fionnuala Brannigan runs Corpus Christi Services, a training project for the long-term unemployed in predominantly Catholic West Belfast. She believes the Troubles have created a two-tier system in Northern Ireland that will take a long time to change.
She said: "A good lot of people left school without ever bothering. They took the attitude 'What's the point?' because there were no jobs. People feel inadequate and stupid and fearful of formal services. Encouraging them back in is very difficult.
"The problems filter through to every aspect of life here. These people have poor writing skills, social skills, life skills - we deal with all of that."