Time we relied on our own expertise


LEFTFIELD:IRELAND WAS known the world over as the ‘island of saints and scholars’, and we traded on that reputation for many years. How often did teachers report receiving a new pupil from the UK or the US but, after a while, advise the parents that their child should drop back a class? Improvements to primary education were made. Progress was slow, but it was steady.

Then, in 2009, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that the standard of literacy and numeracy among 15-year-olds in Ireland had dropped dramatically since the previous assessment. It was an unexpected blow to our proud reputation. If you did not understand teaching and learning, you could be forgiven for thinking that teaching standards had dropped.

I would argue the opposite. There has been immense change in primary school classrooms. The use of technology and other resources has transformed learning. The personal commitment given by primary teachers is unquestionable and the quality of teaching has never been higher.

This begs the question: how relevant is PISA? The OECD, in administering PISA, facilitates 33 member countries, as well as other interested nations, in benchmarking their education systems internationally. Fundamentally, I believe that PISA is flawed. If you want to measure change, you must not change the measure.

Comparing literacy and numeracy levels between China and Ireland is not ‘apples and oranges’. It is more like ‘apples and potatoes’. China’s education ministry was allowed to select one city – Shanghai – to represent the whole country, ignoring hundreds of millions of other students. As well as that, the government was allowed to hand-pick the 100 ‘best schools’ in Shanghai. There, 15-year-olds attend school for 12 hours each day and the nature of teaching and learning is so different from ours that any comparisons are no greater than a curiosity.

Canada was represented by two provinces – Alberta and Ontario – and it was no coincidence that they have better literacy and numeracy outcomes than the country’s other provinces. Many Irish 15-year-olds appraised by PISA did not complete the assessment papers, were unaware of the significance of the task and, not unusually for teenagers, left well before the allocated time. If these issues alone were addressed through better supervision, they would have had a significant impact on the Irish ranking.

So, what can Ireland learn from this? Should we be allowed to determine which three counties have the highest literacy and numeracy standards, then select 50 of the ‘best schools’ in these counties and ask PISA to allow this cohort of students to determine the Irish score? Unlikely? I believe Ireland should withdraw from PISA. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, we have an abundance of expertise in the teacher training colleges, universities, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Department’s inspectorate. Expertise in assessment exists in the Education Research Centre in St Patrick’s College in Dublin and Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. It is time we paid less attention to the highly political PISA programme and focused on setting our own standards and implementing a strategy to achieve them, including provision for independent monitoring.

Principals and teachers have already shown their usual professionalism in adopting plans to maximise time for literacy and numeracy. It is important that teachers and parents are allowed to support children in reaching their potential based on our high standards without the need to participate in an international competition whose methodology is questionable.

Seán Cottrell is director of the Irish Primary Principals Network