Irish students drop in rankings for literacy and maths


THE RANKING of Irish students in literacy and maths has fallen dramatically in the latest OECD survey. The results, described as “disappointing’’ by Minister for Education Mary Coughlan, contradict the common perception that Ireland enjoys a “world-class” education system.

On reading levels, Ireland has slipped from fifth place in 2000 to 17th place, the sharpest decline among 39 countries surveyed.

The organisation’s Programme for International Student Assessment study says almost one-quarter of Irish 15-year-olds are below the level of literacy needed to participate effectively in society.

The trends in maths also give little cause for encouragement. Ireland has fallen from 16th to 26th place, the second steepest decline among participating countries. Ireland is now ranked as below average in maths.

While the results in science are broadly unchanged, there will be disappointment that Ireland is ranked 18th, despite the Government’s focus on the knowledge economy.

The Department of Education admitted it was surprised by the alarming decline in literacy standards. It said a comparative analysis of Junior Cert papers over the past decade had revealed no sharp decline in academic standards.

But the survey – regarded as the most authoritative survey of educational standards – will raise questions about the department’s own national assessments of school standards in English and maths. It will also raise questions about the State exams where persistent grade inflation has led to allegations of a “dumbing down” of the system.

Yesterday, the department said the increase in migrant children, the greater inclusion of children with special needs and fewer early school leavers could explain the decline in literacy and maths standards. But the department acknowledged these factors might explain some but not all of the findings.

There will be concerns in Government circles that the OECD results will undermine Ireland’s prospects of securing inward investment from the US and elsewhere. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said the results would damage the international reputation of Ireland’s education system.

Last night, the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland expressed concern that the education system had yet to deliver improvement in the key areas of reading, mathematics and science. Its chief executive Joanne Richardson said this was “deeply concerning, and represents a threat to Ireland’s attempt to build a knowledge-based economy”.

Responding to the findings, Ms Coughlan insisted there had been no “implosion” in educational standards, “but we are disappointed and we are concerned”.

The department’s chief inspector, Dr Harold Hislop, said that while there may have been some decline in standards, he believed it was “not as bad” as the picture emerging from the OECD report.

There will be particular disappointment that the findings come after unprecedented investment in Irish schools in the past decade.

Overall, the survey showed no clear link between education spending and high achievement in the survey. Ireland still has one of the lowest levels of education spending relative to GDP in the OECD.

The survey also showed no clear link between lower class sizes and high achievement.

The Minister promised a “huge change” in the emphasis of teaching and learning in response to the findings. Broadly, this will see higher entry requirements for teachers at all levels and revamped teacher training programmes with a stronger emphasis on teaching skills.

There will also be a greater focus on continuous professional development for teachers.

The Government is hoping the roll out of the new, more user-friendly Project Maths course will address the weakness in maths.

Overall, Finland, Canada and Poland were among the highest performing countries in reading literacy. In maths, the top ranked countries included Finland, the Netherlands and China.