Shattering the myth of a world-class education system


The latest OECD findings expose the Irish education system for what it is – a lot less successful than we like to tell ourselves

IN THE dark days – and there has been a good number of late – we could at least find comfort in the quality of our education system.

For years, ministers for education and the teacher unions told us we could take pride in our “world class” education system. It was the magnet that helped to draw inward investment to our shores – and it was something that differentiated us from troubled education systems in Britain and elsewhere. When it came to education, the land of saints and scholars could mix it with the folks at the top table.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this portrayal of the Irish education system was almost entirely based on one authoritative study. In 2000, the OECD/Pisa* survey of 15-year-olds ranked Ireland fifth in literacy, well above the OECD average.

This glowing report helped to stifle much-needed debate about the quality of the Irish education system. Naysayers could be rebuked and brought to heel by reference back to that OECD survey. Over the years, the mantra from the Department of Education and the teacher unions became familiar: “We can’t be doing much wrong if we are in the top five in literacy.”

The truth, of course, was more complicated.

Ireland performed well in the 2000 literacy survey because it had an inherent advantage, a homogenous school-going population with few migrants. In simple terms, the task of imparting literacy in Irish classrooms was less challenging than that facing teachers in inner-city Paris or in central London.

But all has changed since 2000. By 2009, more than 8 per cent of the Irish school-going population are migrants and that has made all the difference. Ireland is on a level playing field with other OECD states.

The result? On literacy, Ireland has fallen from fifth place to 17th, the most dramatic drop of any OECD state.

Yesterday, the teacher unions and others were urging caution about the latest literacy figures. Potential problems with the methodology and the sample were cited. But it had the feeling of the players attacking the referee after losing the match. No such quibbles were raised when Ireland performed so well in 2000.

The steady focus on that 2000 literacy result had one other negative effect. Until recently, it crowded out debate on Ireland’s performance in maths and science.

By any measure, this has also been disappointing for a country which sees a

smart economy as key to its economic future. Ireland remains some distance from the premier league, ranked 26th in maths and at average levels in science in 2009.

Cumulatively, this year’s OECD findings on literacy, maths and science represent a body blow to Irish education, shattering all those myths about a “world class” system.

And yet it’s fair to say the findings will not surprise those who have been sounding the alarm for years.

Frustrated primary teachers in working-class suburbs in Dublin will tell you about the appalling, persistently low levels of literacy in their classes. University presidents and the Higher Education Authority say thousands of students – weaned on rote learning in the Leaving Cert – cannot cope with university. Earlier this year, several of the main US multinationals expressed concern about the quality of Irish graduates.

So why was the decline in standards – now confirmed by the OECD – not picked up by the Department of Education?

Perhaps the answer is obvious – it was not asking the right questions.

At its core, there is what we might call an “evaluation deficit” in Irish education. The focus is largely on resources, not surprising given the chronic under-investment in the sector.

Within the Department of Education, there has – until very recently – been no tradition of assessing the outputs from schools.

We have no idea, for example, how our 12-year-olds leaving primary school compare with children in England or France. For years, the Department of Education refused to participate in international reviews of primary education.

At second level, the department does not publish an annual report on the performance of schools. Every year, it congratulates Leaving Cert students and comforts us that standards are “broadly in line” with previous years. There is little analysis of how this year’s trends compare with five or 10 years ago.

The department – often dubbed the “Department of Schools and Teachers” – has not traditionally cast a critical eye on the system it controls. It has opposed the release of information on school performance in the courts.

Mindful of its close relationship with the teacher unions, it has also been slow to mutter even the mildest criticism of teaching standards or teacher quality.

The good news is that a revolution of sorts may be sweeping through Marlborough Street. The new chief inspector of the department, Dr Harold Hislop, and secretary general Brigid McManus are raising awkward questions about quality standards.

Last month, Hislop published a report of school inspections in primary schools. The results were devastating. Shortcomings in almost 15 per cent of English and maths classes were discovered when inspectors arrived unannounced in more than 450 primary schools in the past year.

At second level, inspection reports on schools – notoriously bland in tone – have become more robust and critical.

There are other encouraging signs. A new maths curriculum – with a fresh emphasis on problem solving – is being rolled out in schools.

The initiative is largely in response to a succession of OECD reports highlighting our deficiencies in this key area.

The hope must be that the latest disappointing findings on literacy will have a similarly transformative effect. At the very least, it should remove the complacency and the denial about falling literacy standards.

In all of this, there may also be a need for some wider perspective. Yes, the Irish education system has been too self-regarding for too long. But, for all its faults, it has many positives – not least the strong, personal commitment of many teachers and school leaders.

The Irish education system may not be perfect – but it remains among our best-performing public services.

*The OECD is the 33-country-strong Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, members and associates of which are all committed to democracy and the market economy. Pisa, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by participating economies and administered to 15-year-olds in schools.

Where we stand now: OECD Educational Standard


  • Between 2000 and 2009, Ireland has fallen from 5th place to 17th placeamong 39 countries. This fall is the worst of all countries. One in six students in Ireland has poor reading skills - 17 per cent are low achievers in reading.
  • Students attending girls secondary schools also achieved higher reading scores.
  • Many students from lone parent families performed poorly. First generation migrant children also had lower levels of achievement.


  • Ireland has fallen from 16th place to 26th place in just three years between 2006 and 2009. This fall is the second largest of all countries.
  • Ireland has significantly fewer students attaining higher proficiency levels than the OECD average: 6.7 per cent 111compared to 12.7 per cent.
  • Overall one in five is ranked as low achievers.
  • Largest drop in performance was among Transition Years with evidence of disengagement.


  • There has been no significant change in science achievement since 2006 . Ireland is ranked 18th.

Seán Flynn is Education Editor

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