Méid an Téacs

Teaching time at primary level

Nollaig 14, 2012

Ireland had a mixed result in the international rankings in reading, maths and science published this week.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS ) tested primary school pupils in the equivalent of fourth class in more than 60 countries. Ireland has performed creditably in reading – most Irish pupils are reading at a very high level. But the results in maths and especially in science are less encouraging.

More worryingly, Ireland is not ranked among the top-performing countries in any of the tests. As Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn noted, “pupils in a number of other countries are performing significantly above the performance of Irish students’’.

The results indicate that while the Irish education system at primary level is performing reasonably well, it is not quite the “world class’’ system portrayed by its leading advocates. A similar picture emerged when the Irish second level system was tested by the OECD in 2010. Overall, it’s clear that while the Irish education system has many positives – not least a committed and enthusiastic teaching profession – it is still not world-leading. There is no room for complacency.

The harsh truth is that a certain complacency about overall standards was allowed to settle on the education system over the past two decades. How else might one explain the Department of Education’s refusal to co-operate with the TIMSS rankings and other international surveys since the early 1990s? For years, the Department turned its face against rigorous assessment and analysis of our education system. Successive ministers preferred to roll out those cliches about our “world class’’ education system – despite the lack of supporting evidence.

To his credit, Mr Quinn has been sceptical of these claims made for Irish education. He has described the OECD report as a “wake up call”. It’s clear he sees this week’s report on primary education as a catalyst for change. Already, he has raised awkward questions about the relatively small proportion of time allocated to science and maths in primary schools.

Is it acceptable that only 4 per cent of curriculum time is allocated to science in a State with aspirations to develop a knowledge economy? Is the time devoted to religion ut of kilter – not just with contemporary Irish society – but with the needs of our education system?

Mr Quinn has asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to examine the allocation of teaching time at primary level. Their response is awaited with great interest. Last year, Mr Quinn asked primary schools to increase the time devoted to reading and maths as part of the new strategy to boost literacy and numeracy. A re-allocation of teaching time is also required to address deficiencies in science.