Literacy and numeracy among Irish average or below, according to survey

OECD study across 24-countries involved 6,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 in Ireland

One in six people here struggle with literacy while one in four lack numeracy skills, according to a major study published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It showed that across a 24-country ranking for these life skills, Ireland measured up as only average or below average in all categories.

Details of the study, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies were released yesterday morning. Carried out in Ireland by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the study assessed 6,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 in a three-hour test of literacy , numeracy and problem solving involving the use of technology.

The Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) warned that the State could fall further behind if education programmes were cut, while the National Adult Literacy Agency said the study provided evidence that mainstream education was insufficient to develop these skills for life.


The study assessed skills in these three categories, ranking respondents in levels from one to four. The study also included figures for scores below level one.

It showed that 17.9 per cent of adults were at or below level one for literacy, compared to an average of 16.7 per cent. This placed Ireland at 15th of 24 countries, while across all levels we were still below the average at 17th of 24 countries.

Numeracy was also below average, with 25 per cent of Irish adults scoring at or below level one for numeracy compared to an average of about 20 per cent.

Japan was the only country with fewer than 10 per cent of adults at or below this level.

Literacy tests involved simple reading and comprehension tests, while uncomplicated numeracy examples were used to test this category. The problem solving in a technology-rich environment involved asking people, for example, to send an email to several people or to web browse.

The study showed 42 per cent of Irish adults scored at or below level one, comparable with Finland (39.9 per cent), Estonia (42.8 per cent) and Sweden (43.9 per cent). Japan again scored highest with only 27.3 per cent of adults at or below level one.

The survey "challenges how we think about skills", said Inez Bailey, director of the National Adult Literacy Agency. "It provides compelling evidence that mass participation in mainstream education is not sufficient to produce strong literacy and numeracy skills for life." Skills are developed through life and are not learned once during primary education, she said.

The results showed the danger of Ireland trailing behind countries that have placed a priority on lifelong learning such as Finland and New Zealand, said the TUI. It would be “grossly unfair” if the budget created further distance between us and other jurisdictions by damaging education programmes, particularly for those who pursue education later in life, said the union.

The survey revealed a 4 per cent fall in the numbers of adults at or below level one and this was to be welcomed, said the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. Ireland, however, needed to "build on these improvements and further concentrate on our weaker numeracy skills which are so vital for employability," said the group's chairwoman Una Halligan.

“Ensuring people with the right skills at every level, including basic skills like literacy, digital literacy and numeracy, are available to enterprise is critical for economic development and job creation,” she said.

This was a “first stab” at a comprehensive and detailed study measuring these life skills, said Diarmuid Reidy, senior statistician in the Department of Education.

While literacy and numeracy had been measured before, attempting to gauge technology skills in problem solving was a first, he said.

The data, including a large volume of statistics compiled by the CSO, would advise the Government, educators and policymakers, he said. It would provided a reliable baseline when the survey was repeated in 2022.

Each person who agreed to undertake the survey was offered a €30 voucher. This helped provide an incentive for people to participate according to the department.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

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