Lord Kerslake stressed better skills had to be a priority for the North of England alongside better transport connections and rebuilding manufacturing.
The former Sheffield City Council chief executive and later head of the civil service added his voice to the growing chorus calling for sustained action to improve standards in schools in northern regions including Yorkshire.
Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw recently urged the Government to focus on ironing out regional differences in secondary school standards rather than grammar schools.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference today, Lord Kerslake said: “We have to put our hand up and say that the North underperforms, in my view it is close to catastrophic, on education and skills. Not just on specialist skills but on basic skills.
“In terms of your opportunies in the future, these days they are determined very significantly by whether you get an A* to C in English and maths. If you don’t get that your life changes and prospects vary dramatically. If you don’t get it by 19 its very much harder to pick it up later.
“The country underperforms but the North underperforms even more.”
Lord Kerslake said the North needed to follow efforts made in London to “shift the dial” on educational standards if the ‘northern powerhouse’ vision was to become a reality.
Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew, speaking at the same event, admitted that school standards in Yorkshire needed to improve.
He said: “If we are going to make a success of this we’ve got to look at this for the long term and the fact that some of our schools are underperforming so badly is not acceptable.”
Mr Andrew said he was asking schools in his constituency for their ideas on how to improve standards across the North.