Can Irish pupils be the world's No. 1 in reading?
A new literacy strategy introduced in schools in 2012 is showing positive results, but what more is needed to reach top of the class
Is Ireland within grasp of becoming the best in the world in reading? Whatever about Education Minister Richard Bruton's ambition to make Ireland's education system the best in Europe within a decade, becoming tops in the world, or even Europe, in reading looks like a realistic target.
Last week, a key international study, known as the OECD Programme for Student Assessment (PISA), ranked Ireland third in the world in literacy. It was a small, but nonetheless significant, step up from fourth place three years previously.
In the modern world, literacy means a capacity to read, understand and critically appreciate various forms of communication, including spoken language, printed text, broadcast media and digital media.
The PISA baseline is an ability for students not only to read simple texts and to understand them literally, but to demonstrate, even in the absence of explicit directions, an ability to connect several pieces of information, draw inferences and connect a text to their personal experience and knowledge.
The three-yearly test allows for comparisons in the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science, across the 28 EU member states, 35 countries in the OECD and 72 countries overall. In 2015, 540,00 students, including more than 5,700 in 167 schools in Ireland, were assessed, over three-and-a-half hours.
When looking at the outcomes, particular attention is paid to how Ireland rates within the EU and within the OECD, which covers the developed world.
While Ireland has ground to cover in maths and science, the results for reading are encouraging. Singapore rated highest in reading, and Ireland was in a tightly bunched group of five after that, but deemed third in the OECD, and second in Europe, after Finland, regarded as the poster boy, or girl, for education in Europe, if not the world.
In Olympics terms, it puts Ireland in the medals, and the question is can we go from bronze and silver, to gold.
Two important measures in PISA are the proportions of students achieving at both the lowest and the highest levels.
What made a big difference for Ireland this time was the dramatic improvement in literacy standards among the weakest readers since 2009, when a big blip in the Irish results set alarm bells ringing.
In both Ireland and Singapore, about 10pc of students performed at the lowest literacy levels, which is half the OECD average, and lower than the 15pc in Northern Ireland. In 2009, 17pc of Irish students were in this category, and the leap to 10pc outstripped any other national shift in performance for this cohort.
The 2011 National Strategy for Literacy and Numeracy is taking much of the credit for Ireland's progress.
According to Harold Hislop, the Department of Education's Chief Inspector, the initial focus for most schools was on the literacy side of the strategy because "it was seen as immediately relevant across the curriculum". Education Minister Richard Bruton hopes that putting a similar emphasis now on maths and science will also reap rewards.
The literacy strategy involved a range of initiatives, including the development of individual school plans and a teamwork approach to raising standards, an extra hour a week devoted to literacy and a restructuring of initial teacher education.
"Clearly, what we are doing on reading is working," he says.
However, compared with other high-performing countries, Ireland came up short in terms of the proportion of students excelling in literacy.
Some 10pc of students achieved at the highest level of reading, which, while well ahead of the 6pc for Northern Ireland, is below Singapore at 18pc, Canada and Finland at 14pc
So, how to stretch and challenge our best students so that they will be even better?
Mr Hislop believes initiatives recently introduced at both primary and second-level will play a role in raising achievement among the most able students.
A new language curriculum for primary schools is being phased in; it started in infant and junior classes in September .
It broadens the variety of texts to which pupils are exposed and offers teachers clear guidelines on what students should be achieving in oral, reading and writing skills, and on how to challenge the best pupils to extend themselves.
At second level, a new junior cycle English syllabus is reforming teaching and learning in this subject.
Mr Hislop says that, when compared with the previous syllabus, he believes junior cycle students are reading more literature, while the new focus on discussion and analysis is aimed at developing the higher-order thinking skills, such as understanding inferences, that are valued by PISA.
Girls generally outperform boys in reading, but the PISA findings for Ireland did throw up a bit of a conundrum - an equal percentage of males and females (11pc) achieving at the highest levels.
Ireland's performance was ahead of OECD averages, and the good news was that, since 2012, more boys had stepped up to the plate. But, there was a drop in the number of girls excelling.
This is being attributed to the switch, in 2015, to computer-based rather than paper-based assessment, which is deemed to have suited boys, but not necessarily girls.
Notwithstanding the foundations laid, progress made and promises around a digital strategy for schools that may help address the technology issue, Sheila Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), warns that "just because we've come this far doesn't mean further progress will inevitably follow."
She says that, at primary level, professional development of teachers is a must, on the same scale as it being provided for second-level teachers involved in junior cycle changes. Otherwise, she says, reforms will flounder.
"We probably did well this time because teachers understand the curriculum fully, but changes, such as the language curriculum, will change that, and if unsupported, will impact negatively" she says.