Irish students among ‘best at reading’ in developed world

15-year-olds rank third in OECD study for reading, but science performance a concern

The OECD Pisa study results also show gender differences, with with girls performing better than boys in reading. Photograph: iStock

The OECD Pisa study results also show gender differences, with with girls performing better than boys in reading. Photograph: iStock


Irish secondary school students are among the best at reading in the developed world, according to a major international survey.

Fifteen-year-olds in Ireland rank third among students in 35 OECD countries for reading, while they performed significantly above average in maths and science (13th place).

The results are contained in the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) for 2015 – which is conducted every three years.

They aim to measure how well students at age 15 are performing across reading, maths and science.

While students in Ireland have improved their position slightly in reading and maths over recent years, there was a significant drop in science performance.

Academics involved in the research say this may be partly linked to the introduction of computer-based tests, which involve more complex scientific enquiry.

More than half of students in Ireland had never completed tests of this kind on computer before. In addition, Irish students’ use of computers in school and for homework is significantly less than students across OECD countries.

An encouraging finding is that Ireland is making strides in boosting the performance of low performers, especially in reading.

However, there are relatively low numbers of high-achieving students in science and maths.

This appears to reinforce a long-standing trend where students in Ireland appear to be struggling with “higher order” skills such as creative thinking and problem-solving.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said he was heartened to see Irish 15-year olds are performing at a very high level in reading, but he said there was room for improvement in maths and science.

“The strong message for me is it endorses our need to focus on science and mathematics as a key challenge,” he said.

The results also reveal some gender differences, with girls performing better than boys in reading. However, boys outperformed girls in maths and science.

Dr Gerry Shiel, one of the report’s authors, said the pattern of gender differences has changed in this latest report.

While girls continue to outperform boys on reading literacy by a smaller margin, the differences in favour of boys on maths and science is widening.

He said part of this may be explained by the transition to computer-based testing, where some girls may feel less confident or have less prior experience.

It may also relate to the types of thinking required by the new computer-based tests which include virtual experiments that students are asked to engage with in science.

Overall, while Ireland ranked third in reading among OECD countries, it ranked second among EU countries and fifth out of all 72 countries which participated in the Pisa study.

In science, Irish students ranked 13th out of OECD countries, 6th among EU countries and 19th out of all participating countries.

In mathematics, Irish students ranked 13th of OECD countries, 9th among EU countries and 18th out of all countries.

Teachers’ unions – including the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and Teachers’ Union of Ireland – said the findings reflected the dedication of teachers, parents and school managers in ensuring students receive a high quality education despite cutbacks.

However, the Asti’s general secretary Kieran Christie said the low levels of investment in IT appeared to be hindering progress in the teaching and learning of science.

Clive Byrne of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals said it hoped the steps announced in a recent expert report on Stem education should go some way to addressing IT deficits in schools.