Falling behind on literacy


THIS WEEK, Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn, returned to one of his favourite themes – the manner in which the public had deluded itself about the quality of our education system. Mr Quinn said the 2010 OECD/Pisa study had shaken Ireland out of its “complacency” and undermined the view that it had “the best education system in the world”. The OECD rankings did indeed present a devastating critique of literacy standards in Ireland.

The ranking of Irish 15 year-olds slipped from fifth to 17th place, the sharpest decline among 39 countries surveyed. Moreover, up to a quarter of males were found to be functionally illiterate. At the time, Mr Quinn – then in opposition – said that what had “shattered and angered” him most was that, after 30 years and with increasing resources put into education, reading outcomes, particularly for a cohort of working-class boys, had deteriorated. He said that while resources had been “by and large not a problem”, outcomes had been static or falling.

It was good to hear Mr Quinn speaking with such candour about standards in schools and he has continued to offer the same forthright views as Minister. But is there any sense that the literacy crisis in many of our schools is being addressed? Mr Quinn is placing great store on the Government’s national literacy and numeracy strategy for 2011-2020. Under the strategy, primary schools have increased the time spent on imparting literacy from 50 to 90 minutes a day, teacher training has been extended and more detailed information from standardised tests is given to parents. While all of this is welcome, the meagre funding behind the initiative – a maximum of €17 million from an annual education budget of close to €9 billion – speaks volumes.

Some progress is being made. Recently published reports from Deis or disadvantaged schools show significant improvements in reading outcomes in primary schools and in particular among the lowest performing groups and boys. Mr Quinn must surely recognise the key role these schools play in the front line of the war to boost literacy standards. Or does he? His plan to cut teaching posts in Deis schools as part of budget cuts - now partly rescinded - underlines the lack of coherence in government policy on literacy. Mr Quinn is vulnerable to the charge that he was stripping out the resources that were delivering this improvement. As Sheila Nunan of the INTO observed: “You cannot on the one hand demand higher standards and then cut teacher numbers, reduce funding and decrease supports for disadvantaged children.”

That said, there is no quick-fix solution to the literacy crisis since there are all sorts of cultural and economic factors behind the raw statistics. Successive governments have tried and failed to boost literacy standards. Some measures seem sensible: Deis schools need consistent and additional support, not the threat of fresh cutbacks. It may be that more radical measures are required – a case for incentive payments to attract more outstanding teaching talent to Deis schools?