Invest in education to improve our average system

People have a fascination with league tables and lists. There must be some psychology to it all. A top 10 of almost anything will keep people interested if only to see what gets to be number one. The 10 best YouTube clips, the 10 best holiday destinations, the 10 scariest things.

Forbes magazine told us last week that we are the number one place in the world to do business and during the Celtic Tiger Dublin was the second dearest city in the world after Paris. You want to know where you rank, but almost as important is knowing who did you beat to get to your perch on the league table. Were we ahead of the UK or the US? What apparently backward countries managed to get in ahead of us on the list?

A few weeks back we were wading through the feeder schools league table, a difficult and flawed set of figures that attempts to say how many students went on to third level education after leaving a given school.

This was a league table of superlatives given that nearly 100 of more than 700 schools managed to send all of their students on to third level. Of course this was not really the case, the percentages were flawed because the full data was not available. The percentages sent on to third level included any student from any year who came from a given school. So if you did a gap year or two, or entered third level as a mature student, you were added to that school’s total, swelling numbers to well over 100 per cent for the top schools on the list.

This didn’t stop us of course from gloating about the performance of our children’s schools if they did well, or glossing over the “misleading” statistics when quizzed about a school’s poor showing by a nosey neighbour. It seems we embrace the statistics that suit us and ignore those that don’t.

Most top 10 lists are junk; entertaining but still junk. They take too small a sample to make such a claim or allow biases to creep into the statistics so that the results are inherently flawed.

Some do actually work with real numbers and produce a ranking that has at least some meaning. The Forbes list was based on a set of 11 business-related factors as measured in 145 countries, but we won't challenge that one, the number one ranking is too flattering to dismiss. Ask a few people in business here however and see if they agree with Forbes' observations.

Other times the tables are produced with a staggering amount of data, for example the OECD's Pisa rankings, the Programme for International Student Assessment. The Pisa project started in 2000 and takes place once every three years.

It involves having hundreds of thousands of 15-year-old students across 65 countries including the 34 OECD countries sitting examinations to assess literacy in three subjects – reading, science and mathematics. The 2012 results were published last week and are so data-rich as to be difficult to dismiss if you looked and weren’t satisfied. This was no dodgy top 10 or top 50, these are cold hard statistics about how our 15-year-old students performed in tests on these three subjects compared to peers from around the world.

Ireland apparently performed fairly well, inside the top 10 for results in science and reading and above the OECD average in almost every category. But being above average is a little less attractive when you look closely at the numbers and realise we were only just above average in many cases. It is also worth looking at the point spread between the highest achieving group of students at the top of the league table and our placement at the bottom end of the "above average" category. Whatever about these issues, the real concern must be the fact that, for all but the science results, our students achieved scores that were no better than they were in the 2006 or 2003 or 2000 Pisa results. There was no sign of a sustained if gradual improvement in how we performed and one has to ask why that is so. One would have hoped that each Pisa cycle would see higher scores but this has not happened.

The teachers’ unions congratulated themselves on the results, but also pounced on the Government for cutbacks in education and the austerity agenda. Who can argue with their observations? When it comes to education you get what you pay for and it is one area where greater investment – at primary, post-primary and third level – will deliver improvements. The Asian countries that topped the Pisa league tables spend more per capita than other countries on education and their performance shows the results. We have to invest if we want to see improved performances.