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‘We need to review the time spent on certain subjects’

December 18, 2012

Pupils in a number of countries are performing significantly above Irish students

‘Good, but could do better,” seems to be the verdict of two major international reports on pupil achievement published last week. They showed fourth-class pupils in primary schools achieving well in reading, mathematics and science. In all three areas, Irish pupils scored significantly above the international average.

In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2011), Irish students were ranked 10th out of 45 participating countries. Students in only five places performed significantly better than Irish students: Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, the Russian Federation and Northern Ireland.

Irish students scored significantly above the international average in both maths and science in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2011). Ireland was placed 17th in maths and 22nd in science out of the 50 participating countries.

Of course, pencil and paper tests don’t tell us everything about what children are learning in school, but it is an important part of our Literacy and Numeracy Strategy that we should benchmark the performance of Irish students against that of students in other countries. Until now, we have had no such indicators at primary level and so the TIMSS and PIRLS reports are significant and welcome.

Even though these are just one set of test results, it’s encouraging to see Irish students do so well in international comparisons. It is particularly good to see Ireland having substantially lower proportions of poorer-performing students in both reading and maths than in other countries. The efforts that we have put into our DEIS programme to support schools serving areas of disadvantage, and the special needs resources that we have deployed in all schools, are having a positive effect.

But it’s my duty not to be complacent.

Pupils in a number of countries are performing significantly above Irish students in all three tests. So, there is still work to be done to raise standards in Irish schools.Our neighbours in Northern Ireland have achieved significantly better results in mathematics, for example, and students in many countries are scoring much better in science.

The comprehensive programme laid out in the National Literacy and Numeracy strategy has the range of measures that we need to improve reading and maths standards. We have made a good start. Teacher education is being reformed. Schools are working to improve instruction, assessment and reporting to parents. The introduction of school self-evaluation and the improvements we have made to the inspection of schools are further important supports for better learning.

TIMSS and PIRLS demonstrate that we must continue this work. The good progress achieved by students in reading at primary level must be built upon in all primary schools and also at second level. I have prioritised English in the reform of Junior Cycle and work is well underway in the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy in many second-level schools.

However, the inspectorate’s report on the implementation of DEIS at post-primary level showed considerable weaknesses in the targeting of DEIS initiatives in post-primary schools and we need to improve this aspect of our work.

The areas of weakness in maths among Irish pupils shown up in TIMSS – such as reasoning, shape and measures – are precisely the areas shown as weak in our national assessments at primary level. It’s not surprising that the weaknesses in maths at primary level are also evident at post-primary level. These are among the areas targeted for change in Project Maths. Indeed, these issues point to the need for higher standards of mathematical understanding among all teachers – a key aim of the changes we are making to teachers’ professional development.

TIMSS also challenges us to think about the importance we attach to different aspects of the curriculum. The performance of students in science is somewhat disappointing, although Irish students are above the international average. One underlying reason may be the lack of science skills among primary-school teachers, but the TIMSS study shows that Irish pupils spend considerably less time on science than pupils in other countries.

I have asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to review the recommended time allocations for all subjects in the primary school.

I look forward to the inclusive debate that we must have on this issue for the future good of all our young people.


Foilsithe ar 18 Nollaig 2012