One in five British teenagers is practically unemployable after leaving school as they lack the English and maths skills that are required for everyday use, a new study has found.
The study said despite the billions spent in attempting to raise standards in the three-Rs, the numbers of 16 to 19-year-olds rendered functionally illiterate or innumerate has failed to improve over the last two decades.
Teenagers' reading ability has barely changed since 1960, it was claimed, leaving thousands of young people struggling to "partake fully in employment [and] family life".
The conclusions, in research from Sheffield University, come amid continuing fears over levels of basic skills.
Last month, a cross-party committee of MPs said that the number of school leavers without a job or college place had failed to improve "despite one policy strategy after another".
It will also raise doubts over Labour claims that school standards have risen dramatically in the last 13 years.
On May 7, the National Union of Teachers warned that more action was needed to tackle the "long tail of underachievement" in schools.
In the latest study, academics assessed evidence relating to levels of basics skills among young people between 1948 and 2009.
It said the latest data suggested 22 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were now functionally innumerate, while 17 percent were illiterate.
Prof Greg Brooks, one of the report's authors, said it meant more than a fifth of teenagers left school with "very basic competence in maths" which was "clearly not enough to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of contemporary life".
The report found standards of innumeracy had remained at the same level for 20 years and was "higher than in many other industrial countries".
Academics said that literacy skills had also failed to improve since the late 1980s.
"People at this level can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby," the Telegraph quoted the study as saying.
"Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning, eg., allusion and irony, are likely to be difficult or impossible.
"This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake," it concluded.