IRISH 10-year-olds have been outperformed in science and maths in international tests, prompting new concerns about how well the education system is equipping students for jobs of the future.
Ireland ranked 10th out of 45 in reading, 17th out of 50 in maths and 22nd out of 50 in science in the world's largest educational assessments at primary school level.
Irish pupils scored above average in all three areas – but while they were among the best in reading, they fell significantly behind many top-performing countries in maths and science.
Ireland has scored no better at science or maths than when similar tests were carried out in 1995 – when science wasn't even on the primary curriculum.
Tony Donohoe, head of education policy with employers' organisation IBEC, expressed concern at Ireland's science ranking.
He said: "Our performance could, at best, be described as average and given our aspirations to be a knowledge-based economy, average is not good enough."
Mr Donohoe said Ireland had a particular interest in developing a pipeline of science and technology skills to maintain and develop competitiveness.
One of the issues highlighted in the reports is the amount of teaching time devoted to the different subjects in primary schools.
Mr Donohoe noted that Irish pupils spent 25pc less time learning science than the survey average, and significantly less time than the top countries.
Ireland is close to the bottom of the league in terms of tuition time for science, at the lower end of the scale for maths, and at the high end for reading.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn welcomed the above-average performance by Irish pupils in all three tests, but added: "We cannot be complacent. Clearly, we need to improve our teaching of mathematics and science at all levels."
Mr Quinn said that he would like to see more time devoted to science and maths in schools, rather than Irish and religion.
He noted that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) was currently conducting a review of time spent teaching all subjects at primary level and said he was awaiting the outcome with interest.
The studies, known as TIMSS (maths and science) and PIRLS (reading) were carried out among about 300,000 pupils internationally – including about 4,500 in Ireland in spring 2011.
Since then, teaching time for maths and reading has been increased in primary schools under the new Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.
While primary pupils spend an hour a week on science, Department of Education rules require them to spend two-and-a-half hours a week on religion.
Other studies have shown that Irish primary pupils spend only 4pc of their class time on science – half the international average of 8pc.
By comparison, primary schools devote 10pc of teaching time to religion, two-and-a-half times more than the international average of 4pc.
Irish National Teachers' Organisation general secretary Sheila Nunan said having increased the time allocated to maths in the curriculum "we now need to look at doing the same for science".
She said that aspects of science were relatively new in Irish primary schools and outcomes were relatively good despite the fact that most teachers did not have a background in chemistry and physics in Leaving Cert.
"Government needs to support ongoing professional development for teachers in this area.
"Funding must also be found for proper science equipment to support inquiry and experiment in the classroom."
Irish Primary Principals Network director Sean Cottrell said the findings were "encouraging, but should be treated as a call to action rather than just a reason to rest on our laurels".
In maths, Ireland was significantly below countries such as Singapore, Korea, Japan, Northern Ireland, Finland, England and the US.
In science, Irish students were significantly below Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan, the US, Sweden and England.
Ireland has, however, reduced the proportion of really weak pupils in reading and maths, attributed to extra resources put into schools to support students suffering a disadvantage.