PISA: dangerously unbalanced education

PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), as some readers will know, is an assessment of 15-year old students carried out every three years by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 countries and regions (where a region is considered a distinct ‘economy’). The results of the 2009 test have just been released, and they don’t necessarily make for very comfortable reading, either in Ireland or in Scotland.

Ireland is ranked in 21st place. For comparison, the top performer is Shanghai in China, followed by Korea and Finland. The United States is at number 17, Germany is at number 20, and the UK at number 25. At the bottom of the table we have Azerbaijan and Krygyzstan.

The UK gets more specific comments in the documentation, and what stands out is the apparent conclusion that its only middling performance is not the result of under-investment. The report points out that the UK is one of the top education spenders measured per pupil, and Britain’s parents are amongst the most educated, and yet the country under-performs. But interestingly, while literacy in the UK is relatively high, proficiency in mathematics and science is below average.

Ireland’s performance in mathematics is also below average (the country fares better in science). And overall, Ireland’s standing in educational terms has declined significantly over the lifetime of these tests since 2000.

The worrying thing about PISA is that we know that our education systems in these islands are in decline, but there is a remarkably inadequate sense of urgency in our countries about this and not much of an understanding why this is so. We conduct our education debate around the issue of resources (as we know from current excitements), but while these are of course important they are not everything, and we need to get a much better grip on what it is that we are doing wrong. We are seriously at risk of being seen as educational under-performers, and we cannot afford that if we are to return to better and more prosperous times.

Explore posts in the same categories: education

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

26 Comments on “PISA: dangerously unbalanced education”

  1. Colum McCaffery Says:

    I don’t know of anyone teaching at 3rd level in Ireland who is unconcerned about the numbers of students who are lacking in basic skills. Most lecturers talk of illiteracy, fewer seem to be aware that numeracy is too often below the level necessary for competent citizenship, while knowledge of science/technology is insufficient to engage with many public controversies. There is a problem too with a shocking level of general knowledge.

    All of this can be dismissed as fretting based on anecdotes but there are an awful lot of anecdotes and they are very, very similar.

    I really do wish to be wrong on this but I think there is something terribly wrong with Irish primary and/or secondary education.




    • Kevin O'Brien Says:


    • Ros Says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more Colum. Having worked in the adult literacy and adult education sector for some years, I noticed an increase, year by year, in the number of younger adults attending our classes who had completed their secondary education. Having also had experience of third level teaching, I’m constantly dumbfounded by the lack of any substantial level of general knowledge among the students. It takes up valuable class time when the lecturer has to set out the background to the topic before getting down to the actual set work. It saddens me to say that there has to be something incredibly amiss at primary and secondary level.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I do not for one instant believe that we are below the US. Nor do I hold that the people that came here since 2000 could have much to do with any drop. We are not inner city Paris or the Petticoat Lane area of Tower Hamlets in London nor is there a critical mass of immigrants living in one area such that they can block inputs from the majority.
    What I do believe is that methods in education in the high scoring areas has changed since 2000 while we continue along our merry way.
    And for what it’s worth. I think that the removal of the Catholic Church from all inputs to the schools except those like ‘Clongowes’ to be a bad thing. However annoying and stubborn they were/are what will happen when run entirely by civil servants will be nearer to the regime of a workhouse.
    It would be little harm though if the subvention was halted, it is unconscionable for Blackrock, Rockwell and the CoI schools get a State Vote while the Blind go hungry. Disgusting.

  3. copernicus Says:

    I am not sure what folks know about Tower Hamlets. Whilst there are clusters of immigrant communities there, Universities like Queen Mary attract a sizeable number of students from there. “Blocking inputs from majority” of what? Drunken and disorderly behaviour or underperformance as working class whites are often the underperformers by a notch below Afro-Caribbean? I never believed in these assessments, as even at 25 Britain punches high, and we have some of the best scientists in the world. I have yet to read a recognised name say in molecular biology or computer science or mathematics in Ireland.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    The Scotsman’s analysis of Scotland’s peformance starts like this:
    ‘Most Scots associate Pisa with dodgy Italian architecture. But in many countries the acronym for the Programme for International Student Assessment is very familiar.’ The ‘dodgy Italian architecture’ bit is hilarious, why is it that league tables never take humour into account? Plenty available in Scotland’s educational institutions, especially these days! Not a valuable skill to the economy, i guess..

  5. Perry Share Says:

    It is pretty obvious that the Finns are doing something right. Has our esteemed minister for education taken the trouble to find out what it is? I am sure it has nothing to do with either a) their more egalitarian social system or b) their excellent public childcare system.

    I wonder if there was a PISA test for knowledge of religious dogma how Ireland would fare, given that a very significant amount of time is spent on this in the Irish primary sector?

    • Perry, it’s not just or particularly the Finns. The top 5 are Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore. What that suggests is that there may be something in the Chinese/Far East method that is particularly good that perhaps we should be considering?

      • anna notaro Says:

        South Korea was the first country in the world to provide high-speed internet access from every primary, junior, and high school.

      • Perry Share Says:

        OK, but there is a considerable cultural difference between us and HK, Singapore et al. On the other hand Finland is a European country, similar size and a similar history. On the other hand they do have a broadly social democratic polity, as opposed to our neo-liberalism. But I think that their success would repay close study.

  6. Moises Says:

    You can find the results of the last PISA reports about reading a mathematics student performance by country at
    reading: https://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?reportId=3355
    maths: https://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?reportId=3356
    Hope you find the useful

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    Ruari Quinn fingered the obvious culprits the other day. Unfortunately both are sacred cows: the time devoted to religious instruction and to learning Irish. Take that 30% of the school day and devote it to maths and English and throw in some art and music: problem solved.

    • Ernie, I agree that the time has come for both of these to be considered. Though I am myself an active church member, I have suggested publicly that the time has come to remove RE from the primary curriculum and to make room for it outside of normal school hours for those who desire it. I believe there should be some RE in the secondary curriculum, because it is an important subject for intercultural understanding.

  8. Al Says:

    It will be interesting to hear the excuses that will be rolled out.

    One thing that needs to be curtailed is this education by spectation where it is all listening and no activities.
    There are various reasons for this.
    1 Health and Safety and the pursuit of the risk free environment does not foster intelligence.
    All of us have been coralled into this, parents, teachers boards of management?

  9. copernicus Says:

    Religion should have no place in either primary or in secondary curriculum. If some one is interested in a particualr religion, then it is left to him/her to study it as an individual.

  10. Jim Says:

    Whatever the reasons for this decline in standards, it has been accompanied by a significant general *rise* in grades at both second and third level over the same period. So either PISA’s assessment methodology or ours is seriously flawed.

  11. kevin denny Says:

    We need to calm down a bit here. So we are lower in the rankings than before?
    In PISA 2000 there were 32 countries including Ireland. PISA 2006 had 57 countries. So the number of countries has grown over time, its 64 now. So you would expect some to come in above us and some below us so its not that surprising that our distance from the top rises. Our distance from the bottom may also have risen over time and that could be interpreted positively.
    A cleaner comparison would compare us with only those countries in from the beginning.
    Secondly, PISA scores are normed to have a mean of 500 overall each wave. So the data tells you where each country is relative to the others. It does not, I think, tell you about absolute changes. In other words Irish students may be actually be doing better than before on the tests but others have simply increased by more.
    People in education in Ireland constantly oppose “school league tables” because they do not compare like with like. So why are these league tables immune to the same criticism?

    • I would take that point, Kevin – but in a very competitive world our relative standing compared with others does matter.

      • kevin denny Says:

        I agree Ferdinand but these results can’t really be used to bash teachers, schools etc. Most of the entrants have tended to be poorer countries since the original 32 was largely OECD plus a few more so one might expect more to have come in below us rather than above.
        When I have a spare moment I might see where we are relative to the original cohort.

    • Vincent Says:

      Yes but by not accepting league tables the teaching unions are shooting themselves in the foot. If everything was like for like then there would be little need for a league table in the first place. It’s not the similarity that matters but the contrasts. How can anyone in honesty hold that Blackrock and schools in Ballymun are the same.

  12. Stop, stop, stop.

    There is more wrong than will be cured by a few hours diverted from RE or Irish and quibbling over where we are in a league table.

    Talk to Irish lecturers. They’ll tell you that we have a problem and it seems to be getting worse.

  13. Viola Gilroy Says:

    I just came accross this blog because I was looking for info on Pisa. I had heard that Ireland’s performance had declined. I wanted some facts because our NS has been closed for already 7 days in the last few weeks and I can’t see it opening again this year. Health and Safety issues are quoted. Our school does not rely on busses. The rest of the country struggles on except for the schools. Do they not realise that we can’t afford to miss school days to the extent that we have???

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: