A POOR score by Irish adults in a major international survey on reading, maths and digital literacy skills has sparked warnings about how well equipped the population is for modern-day living and working.
Almost one in five – 18pc – of Irish 16- to 65-year-olds have difficulty with simple literacy tasks such as reading labels, information on supermarket packaging or the instructions on an ATM machine.
While it is an improvement on the 22pc in a similar survey in the 1990s, it is slightly below the average of 17pc found in the landmark 24-country Survey of Adult Skills by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
When it comes to numeracy, Ireland performs significantly below the international average – both for those at the lower and upper end of the maths proficiency scale.
About one-quarter – 26pc – of Irish adults score at the lowest level for numeracy, against an international average of 20pc.
Meanwhile, only 36pc of Irish adults perform at the upper end, much lower than the average 47pc.
The survey also examined digital literacy skills, testing ability to use a number of common computer applications, such as email, spreadsheets, word processing and internet browser, to complete tasks.
Again, Irish adults compare unfavourably, with only one-quarter – 25pc – performing at the upper end of the technology skills scale, compared with an international average of about one-third – 34pc.
The proportion of Irish adults deemed to have lower digital literacy skills was broadly in line with the international average.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn admitted that Ireland's overall performance on literacy, and particularly numeracy, was "not as strong as I would have liked".
But the findings provoked a stronger reaction elsewhere.
Tony Donohoe, Head of Education Policy at IBEC, the group that represents Irish business, said it was a serious wake-up call for the Irish education system and demanded an urgent response.
He said while Ireland was below average in terms of literacy (17th), numeracy (16th) and problem solving (18th), "even more alarmingly", the performance of young Irish adults (16-24 years) was no better.
"Basic skills determine an individual's participation in employment, education and training, and have implications for their health and civic engagement.
"They also affect the competitiveness of the economy," he said
Mr Donohoe said the Government had already announced a number of initiatives in the literacy and numeracy area and "the priority now must be implementation".
Una Halligan, chairperson of the Government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, said ensuring people with the right skills at every level, including literacy, digital literacy and numeracy, were available to enterprise was critical for economic development and job creation.
She said skills requirements for entry-level positions were rising, while individuals who did not have the basic literacy, numeracy and digital literacy would struggle with adapting to changing work practices.
Inez Bailey, director, National Adult Literacy Agency, said the survey confirmed findings from other reports that people with the lowest skill levels also had low educational attainment, earn less, were more likely to be unemployed and have poorer health.
The study was carried out in late 2011 and early 2012, and involved almost 6,000 16- to 65-year-olds in Ireland.