Saturday 25 November 2017

Reading, maths skills of Irish students show alarming fall

Our pupils slump from 5th to 17th in global study

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Teacher union leaders sought to play down significance of the findings

A shocking fall in the performance of Irish 15-year-olds in reading and maths has set alarm bells ringing among employers and politicians.

Ireland's educational image took a hammering in the Performance International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, a three-yearly global league table from the international think-tank, the OECD.

The most spectacular fall was in reading scores, with the ranking of Irish teenagers plummeting from fifth to 17th between 2006 and 2009, putting them at the OECD average.

While Ireland traditionally has rated only average in maths and science, there was a view that reading was a natural strength.

But Ireland had fewer top-performing students in reading and more at the lower end of the scale, the study showed.

Ireland's scores in maths also took a further knock over the three-year period, dropping from 16th to 25th among the 34 OECD countries.

Science results were more stable and Ireland remains above the OECD average, but still sits at only 13th.

The findings sent shockwaves through the Department of Education, which sought an independent review from experts from Statistics Canada, as well as domestically from the Educational Research Centre.


While they advised that the results of one test should be treated with a caution, the department is taking serious note of the core PISA message.

The experts attributed some of the decline in scores to:

  • Increasing numbers of pupils from immigrant backgrounds.
  • More weaker-performing students because of less early-school leaving.
  • The chance inclusion of a number of very low-performing schools, not covered in previous surveys.

The department also asked the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to compare Junior Certificate exam scripts over the decade -- and they reported no slippage in standards.

However, an Irish Independent analysis of the Junior Certificate over the period, 2000-2009, shows that the results actually improved, raising questions that grade inflation may be at play (see graphic).

The Department of Education denies this.

Education Minister Mary Coughlan admitted disappointment with the PISA results and said: "We must make a major effort to improve our literacy and numeracy standards."

She recently announced plans for major reforms, starting with putting more emphasis on teaching teachers how to teach, as well as devoting more time to basic literacy and numeracy in schools.


Almost 4,000 Irish students completed the assessment last year, which was carried out in 34 OECD countries and 31 others. Other findings include:

  • Differences in national income per head of population account for only about 6pc of differences in average student performance.
  • Students who attend pre-primary education perform better than those who don't.
  • Average learning time for maths and science combined is 6 hours 40 minutes but it is below 6 hours in Ireland and six other countries. The highest is in Singapore at 11 hours per week.

Tony Donohue, head of education policy with the employers group IBEC, said they had already raised concerns about literacy.

Mr Donohue said that the marked decline in the number of high-achieving mathematics students was of particular concern to business.

He said the future of export-led high technology in Ireland would depend on sufficient numbers of suitably qualified graduates.

The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, which represents the US multinationals in Ireland, has expressed its concern that the Irish education system has yet to deliver improvements in the key areas of reading, mathematics and science.

Teacher union leaders sought to play down the significance of the findings. INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said: "It is important not to read too much into a single test. All other evidence shows that Irish literacy and numeracy standards are stable."

ASTI general secretary Pat King said there had been profound changes to the second-level student population over the past decade. TUI general secretary Peter MacMenamin said the report provided only a snapshot of the selected group at a precise moment in time.

But Labour education spokesman Ruairi Quinn said the results were a "shocking indication of how our education system fails to perform at the most basic levels".

Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd said that "generations of Irish students" would "have to pay for the disastrous decisions of Fianna Fail governments". He added, "Now this report shows that they are already suffering."

Irish Independent

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