I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.
The results of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment 2009 were published last week. The test results of Irish students were mixed. They scored above the OECD average in science, at the OECD average in reading and below the OECD average in mathematics. Comparisons take place against the last year the subject area was the major focus of the PISA survey. While Ireland's ranking in science between 2006 and 2009 rose from 20th to 18th it fell from 5th to 17th in reading between 2000 and 2009 and from 20th to 26th in mathematics between 2003 and 2009.
While I welcome the results Irish students achieved in the PISA tests for science, I am disappointed with the results in reading and maths. The extent of the falls in the reading scores of Irish students are surprising as Irish students scored well above average in reading in all previous rounds of PISA. The national assessments of mathematics and English reading also show stable literacy and numeracy levels among Irish primary students and standards have remained constant in the State examinations taken by all students at post-primary level. Irish students also obtained a high literacy-related score in the International Civic and Citizenship Education, ICCS, study, ranking 7th out of 36 participating countries in 2009.
My Department has had detailed studies of the Irish data for PISA completed by the educational research centre and by an independent team of experts from Statistics Canada. Both teams of experts have concluded that some, but not all, of the lower scores in reading and maths are explained by changes in the demographics of the group of 15 year olds taking the test. Greater numbers of students whose first language is not Irish or English are now in our classrooms, as are greater numbers of students with special educational needs. We are being more successful in keeping our children in education longer but this means that there are weaker performing students taking the PISA test that might not have remained in school in former years.
The experts from Statistics Canada and the ERC have advised that "it is likely that issues about the construction of achievement scores and establishing links, trends, across cycles of PISA contributed to the low scores of students in Ireland in reading and mathematics" and that the techniques used by PISA "have overestimated the size of the decline [in achievement]". The OECD also notes that the "performance changes are associated with a fairly large standard error". Few educational systems have ever experienced actual changes in educational standards of the size reported for Ireland over the period of time covered by PISA.
While Statistics Canada and the ERC have pointed out that Irish students' test scores have been declining in reading and maths, they have also have cautioned against placing undue importance on the single set of PISA 2009 scores. They believe that it is not possible to say whether the decline in the 2009 PISA tests indicates an actual decline in standards in Ireland.
Irrespective of whether the decline in the scores on the PISA test represent a real decline in standards, I am concerned that Irish students did not achieve high scores on the PISA tests. It would also be unwise to ignore the possibility that the results may reflect some decline in standards in Irish schools. I believe that our focus should be on taking the action needed to ensure that Ireland's students are among the high-performing countries in reading, maths and science. There is a need to improve Ireland's overall standards in literacy and numeracy and that is why the Government is taking a proactive approach to improving literacy and numeracy standards.
We have been concerned about our standards in maths for some time. A major reform programme, Project Maths, is under way and was rolled out to all second-level schools in September 2010. The project involves a major curriculum revision, a different approach in the examinations papers and a nationwide programme of teacher education for existing mathematics teachers. It also encourages more students to take mathematics at the higher level in the State examinations and aims to improve standards in mathematics generally. In addition, bonus points are being introduced for entry to higher education to encourage more students to study leaving certificate higher level mathematics.
In November 2010, I launched Better Literacy and Numeracy for Children and Young People: A Draft National Plan to Improve Literacy and Numeracy in Schools. This sets out a range of significant measures to improve literacy and numeracy in early childhood education, primary and post-primary schools. It will involve major reforms to teacher education, the school curriculum, a whole-school focus on strategies to improve literacy and numeracy, curricular changes and a radical improvement in the assessment and reporting of progress at student, school and national level. I am confident that focused attention on literacy and numeracy along the lines proposed in the plan will improve the standards of Irish students over time and their performance relative to their international peers.