Why the Harry Potter generation gets low marks for literacy . . .
The apparent drop in literacy levels among Irish schoolchildren is likely to cause much soul-searching in Irish education circles next year.
Improved teacher training and greater involvement of parents in children's education are among the suggestions that have been made after a major report showed an alarming drop in reading scores.
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 2000 and 2009, putting them at the OECD average.
While our average score in Maths was not surprising, and in line with previous surveys, researchers have been taken aback by our reading score.
Ireland's decline in literacy, according to the survey, was the biggest in any OECD country.
In the PISA test, 15-year-olds are tested on their reading skills and comprehension of texts.
The performance of students declined uniformly across all ability levels.
The key findings of the OECD/PISA survey for Ireland include:
- One-in-six students in Ireland has poor reading skills -- 17% are low achievers in reading.
- Almost a quarter of males (23%) achieved an average score which is considered to be below the level of literacy needed to participate effectively in society.
The Department of Education has sought to attribute some of the findings to an increase in the number of immigrant children, the greater inclusion of children with special needs and fewer early-school leavers in the system. But that is only part of the story.
In its National Assessments of Mathematics and English Reading, the Education Research Centre (ERC) in Dublin noted that most "newcomer'' children spoke English and that their test scores were not that different to those of native-born pupils.
Education researchers will expend much energy trying to get to the bottom of the literacy problem.
In the dying days of the Fianna Fail/Green administration, Mary Coughlan has focused on the issue.
Last week she told the Dail that homes with a lack of reading material and televisions in bedrooms contributed to our under- achievement.
Contrary to popular belief the latest study seemed to show that the Harry Potter generation is not all that interested in books. The craze for the JK Rowling novels may have been little more than a blip.
Forty-two per cent of students in Ireland reported in the PISA study that they never read for enjoyment. In the year 2000 that figure was 33%.
At primary level, studies at the Education Research Centre have shown that the experience and qualifications of teachers have an important bearing on pupil performance. In sixth class, pupils who used workbooks infrequently tended to do better.
Sean Dempsey, a former Department of Education inspector and teaching lecturer, said attention should be paid to the training of primary teachers.
"There has been a sharp diminution in the amount of time devoted to supporting and evaluating newly qualified teachers by the Department of Education and Skills. When I was an inspector, there was much more time devoted to monitoring a teacher's progress and providing them with a substantial final report.
"Teacher training programmes need to be extended to four years with a much stronger emphasis on practical school experience, as is the case in many other countries an the teacher induction programme should be rolled out nationwide."
In its recent National Assessments of Maths and English Reading, the Education Research Centre emphasised the crucial role of parents in improving literacy.
Students tend to do better if their parents read for enjoyment, there are books in the home and parents feel confident about helping their children with reading.
The decline in reading skills has coincided with the growth of the internet as a mass medium, but there is little conclusive evidence the internet is the main cause of a fall-off in literacy.
According to the Education Research Centre, pupils tend to do better if they spend "no more than a moderate amount of time on school days on the internet or playing computer games".'
Dr Gerry Shiel, one of the recent national assessment of literacy, said: "The study shows the vital role that parents have in promoting reading and maths skills. Parents are the first educators of their children. It's important to emphasise to parents that simple things -- buying books for your pre-school child or counting aloud the number of items in your supermarket trolley -- done on a regular basis, can have great benefits."
The Education Research Centre's study called on the Government to start a public awareness campaign to advise parents about practices that help their child's academic development.
According to the study, parents should be advised to discuss books with their children and to discourage unmonitored access to televisions in bedroom.
The National Parents Council (NPC) has called on the Department of Education to address the literacy issue as a matter of urgency.
Aine Lynch, chief executive of the NPC, said: "Parents have a role to play in supporting their children in order to achieve the highest education standards.
"Research suggests that parental involvement in a child's learning has more of an impact on a child's educational outcomes than any other demographic measure including social class, level of parental education, or income.''
Aine Lynch urged parents who have not yet finished buying their Christmas presents for children to get them a book.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation said the negative test results for Irish pupils in PISA 2009 should be treated with caution.
"It is important not to read too much into a single test," said INTO General Secretary Sheila Nunan. "All other evidence shows that Irish literacy and numeracy standards are stable."
The INTO said significant changes over the past decade could not be ignored. "In almost every Irish classroom there are more pupils who do not speak English as their first language and more special needs pupils," said Ms Nunan.
"Nor have class sizes been reduced to allow teachers to teach this different cohort of children and to implement the curriculum as intended."
Ms Nunan said the outcomes of the PISA report would harm the international reputation of Ireland's education system. She said it was important that all the education partners work together to repair the damage done.