Despite strong literary tradition, study reveals lacklustre literacy results

Population-based study involved 6,000 subjects who took reading and comprehension tests

In the OECD study, the Republic is ranked 17th out of 24 participating countries in terms of literacy.

Levels of literacy and numeracy here compare poorly with other OECD countries, something that should leave people feeling disappointed.

It is just not good enough to be considered “average” and sometimes “below average” in these areas. There is no consolation in the fact that we are joined in this ranking by the US, Poland, Finland and others who land in the bands considered average.

The Republic has considered itself a country with a long literary tradition and highly literate population.

This, however, was found to be incorrect on the basis of the OECD study. It is not that we are scraping the bottom in terms of literacy, we were ranked 17th out of 24 participating countries and are comfortably in this average band along with Northern Ireland, Germany, Austria and Flanders, in Belgium, among others.


The survey involved 6,000 subjects who took reading and comprehension tests. The population-based survey was carried out here by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) which published the findings with the OECD data.

We are below average in terms of numeracy, placing us at 19th of 24. Again we must be dissatisfied, despite sharing this slot with France and performing better than the US, Italy and Spain.

These lacklustre results mean our education system is not enriching students sufficiently to achieve better results and to challenge, for example, table-topper Japan. The tests were not based on any school curriculum, but were compiled as a way to gauge general competency in these life skills.

Again grasping at straws, some argue that the older age cohort in the 16 to 65-year age bracket depressed numbers perhaps through lower levels of educational achievement. The CSO data can show the difference between say the 16 to 24 versus 55 to 65 cohorts, but the surveys conducted here were also carried out in the same way in other participating countries.

This age spread was certainly at work in the third competency measured, “problem solving in a technology-rich environment”, with the older cohort performing at a lower level than the younger folk. All countries had this effect at play and yet in this category – across 20 OECD countries for this test – we still only matched average or performed below average in this competency.

The results suggest that the education system is leaving us with lower residual levels of these life skills than other countries.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.