Opinion: Pisa results, good news and bad

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn


Parents can take much satisfaction from last week’s international comparisons of how 15 year-olds in 34 countries, including Ireland, are doing in the key areas of maths, reading and science.

The results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) do, of course, contain some important caveats. But they show that in 2012, Ireland’s 15-year-olds scored significantly above the OECD average in maths, reading and science and significantly better in all areas than in 2009.

Ireland is now placed fourth out of 34 countries for reading, sharing that spot with the Finns whose education system is regarded as one of the best in the world. We are now ranked ninth best for science, a considerable improvement on previous studies, and 13th of the 34 OECD countries for maths.

These results are very welcome. They provide a ready response to those who claim standards are slipping. They were achieved despite the cutbacks that have had to be introduced because of the economic situation.

In short, the 2012 findings are a testament to the good practice that takes place on a daily basis in our schools. I warmly congratulate our teachers, principals and students on these achievements.

It is particularly good to see that the considerable resources we invest in supporting students with learning difficulties seem to be having a positive effect. The performance of lower-achieving students in Ireland is better than the OECD average in reading, maths and science and we have lower proportions of poorly-performing students in all three tests than on average in the OECD.

However, the 2012 figures make clear that no real improvement has occurred in Irish students’ performances in maths and reading since Ireland first participated in Pisa in 2000. Most worryingly, the Pisa outcomes show that we have relatively low proportions of high-achieving students, especially in maths and science.

Science, however, shows a continuous and significant improvement since 2006. This is really welcome, and it points to one of the most important lessons from Pisa 2012. The improvements in science demonstrate that we can improve learning in schools but that it takes time for initiatives to have an impact on performance.

It is only now that we are seeing the positive impact of the introduction of science at primary level in 1999 and the extensive revisions we made to Junior Cert science in 2003. Clearly, this significant curriculum reform, and the investment we made in teachers’ professional development at that time, are starting to pay off.

The Pisa 2012 outcomes certainly identify serious challenges we have to address, particularly in maths and in the performance of high-achieving students across all areas. But Pisa 2012 also confirms that we have the potential to be among the best-performing countries in the world if we tackle the need for curriculum change, if we support teachers in implementing change, and if we monitor students’ learning carefully.

The Government is committed to the slow, long-term task of improving our schools. The vast majority of students who took the Pisa 2012 tests didn’t have the benefit of the improvements being brought about by the literacy and numeracy strategy and Project Maths, but in the next round of Pisa, in 2015, we should begin to see the beneficial impact of both these initiatives.

We also have to implement further curriculum change to ensure that learning, especially in second-level schools, can be better than anywhere else in the world.

I urge all those in the education system to continue to work together to achieve this goal.

Ruairí Quinn is the Minister for Education and Skills

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