Ireland’s Ranking on PISA: Discussion

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss Ireland's ranking in the programme for international student assessment, PISA, report. I am pleased to welcome from the Educational Research Centre, Dr. Peter Archer, director, Dr. Jude Cosgrove, research associate, and Ms Rachel Perkins, research associate, and from the Department of Education and Skills, Ms Brigid McManus, Secretary General, Mr. Harold Hislop, chief inspector, Mr. Alan Wall, director, Mr. Eamon Murtagh, assistant chief inspector, and Mr. Philip O'Flaherty, principal officer. The format of the meeting will be a brief presentation by the delegation on their findings followed by a question and answer session.

Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and the witness continues to so do, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I invite Dr. Archer to open proceedings.

Dr. Peter Archer

I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to describe the programme for international student assessment, PISA, and discuss the findings of the most recent cycle of the project. PISA is a major international research project that was first implemented in 2000 and collects data from 15 year olds at three year intervals in a growing number of countries. In 2000, 32 countries or economies participated in the project and 65 did so in 2009. Besides Dr. Jude Cosgrove and Ms Rachel Perkins, both of whom are present, Gerry Shiel and Gráinne Moran are other key members of the PISA team. This presentation is a brief summary of a submission to the joint committee which is, in turn, a summary of a longer report that is available on the Educational Research Centre website,

The main focus of PISA is on the measurement of the skills that are deemed necessary for young people to participate in work, further education and life more generally. This is an innovative and ambitious approach which has implications for the capacity of PISA to measure change over time. These implications will be mentioned again later.

In 2009, the mean reading score for Ireland was not significantly different from the OECD average and indicated a large decline since 2000. Ireland's country ranking shifted from fifth out of 29 OECD countries in 2000 to 17th out of 34 OECD countries in 2009. These results refer to a test involving reading conventional paper-based text. Results of the PISA 2009 electronic assessment of reading will be available in June 2011.

Ireland's mathematics score also dropped significantly since 2003. Ireland now ranks 26th out of 34 OECD countries in mathematics and while Irish students had been performing at around the OECD average in previous cycles of PISA, they are now significantly below it. In contrast to reading and mathematics, scores in science have not changed since 2006 and Ireland remains slightly above the OECD average.

PISA is about far more than international league tables or country rankings, although inevitably perhaps, such comparisons are what attract most media attention. Some of the findings from or related to PISA that may merit attention include the association between social background and achievement, which although weaker in Ireland than on average across other countries, is still large; a decline in reading for enjoyment over time among the 15 year olds studied; the fact that a large part of what young people are reading is electronic text rather than conventional text; the increase in the number of students, especially boys, with very low levels of reading proficiency; and the fact that students in Ireland continue to perform less well on real-life mathematics problem-solving tasks of the sort assessed in PISA than they do on other mathematical tasks.

To return to the matter of the decline in performance in reading and mathematics, questions arise about the extent to which the observed declines represent a real decline in the proficiencies of Irish students. Unfortunately, definitive answers to these questions cannot be given at this time. However, a number of points should be noted. First, if declines in proficiency of this magnitude had occurred, one would expect that there would be corroborating evidence from other sources, for example, national assessments or the results of public examinations. We are unaware of any such evidence.

Second, some decline in performance was to be expected because of changes in the population, and therefore, the PISA samples, between 2000 and 2009. For example, the percentage of students taking part in PISA whose first language is not English or Irish has increased fourfold since 2000 to 3.6% in 2009 and this group is less socio-economically advantaged than it was a decade ago. More of the PISA cohort is staying in school now than was the case in 2000. The relevant school leaving rate is down from 2.1% to 1.6%. It is likely that more students with an identified special educational need participated in 2009 than in 2000.

The third factor which one should note in trying to decide whether there has been a real decline in standards is that there has been an increase in the percentage of PISA students in transition year, from 16% to 24%, and a corresponding decrease in fifth year students, from 19% to 15%, which could have had an effect on levels of achievement although it is not clear how or necessarily in what direction those effects might be. Fourth, although the samples of schools in Ireland participating in each PISA cycle is representative of its respective population, there is some basis for believing that random sampling fluctuations may have contributed to the observed declines. Fifth, serious questions have been raised in recent work by our own centre and by Statistics Canada about the scaling procedures used in PISA, namely, the conversion of the number of items answered correctly into a scale score. Questions have also been raised about how change is measured over time, for example, the over-reliance on a small number of test items taken by students in the various cycles of PISA. Measurement experts agree that the monitoring of trends in international surveys of education is a complex and evolving area and consensus is yet to be reached on a number of important methodological features of trend measurement.

Finally, there is some support for an hypothesis that students in PISA 2009 may have taken the exercise less seriously than their counterparts in previous cycles due, perhaps, to a certain amount of survey fatigue. Further exploration of the factors just identified will be a significant part of the work of the centre in the immediate future. While there is cause for concern in the recent PISA results, it would be unwise to base a policy response on a single source of information. In that regard, we look forward to the results of the electronic reading component of PISA and of another international study in which Ireland is participating at primary school level, the report of which is due in late 2012. In the meantime we hope that our work is of some benefit to policy makers as they address the many challenges facing Irish education especially in regard to literacy and numeracy.

Ms Brigid McManus

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the committee on the outcomes of the OECD's programme for international student assessment, PISA, 2009. Dr. Archer of the Educational Research Centre, ERC, which administers PISA on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, has outlined the key findings of the 2009 cycle of PISA tests in Ireland. While lrish students achieved mixed outcomes across the three domains of reading, maths and science, the findings are very disappointing. The results have been and continue to be treated as a matter of serious concern by the Department.

PISA is an important collaborative international research project that allows us to compare the performance of our students with those of other countries in reading, mathematics and science. PISA does not purport to measure the broad range of outcomes that we expect schools to develop in our young people. PISA cannot measure skills such as social skills or the ability to learn quickly, or higher order skills such as the ability to manage and process information. It is also important to bear in mind that it does not directly measure what is taught in schools. For example, some students who take the PISA science test do not study science in school. Nevertheless, the Department believes strongly that PISA provides a valuable measure of students' achievement in the core competence of reading and in some important aspects of mathematics and science - all of which are among the essential skills young people will require for employment and participation in society.

Our first task in the Department has been to understand as fully as possible how the performance of Irish students in reading and mathematics had declined on the PISA tests when previous cohorts of Irish students had recorded very high achievement scores in reading and had performed at the OECD average in mathematics. Few educational systems have ever experienced actual changes in educational standards of the scale reported for Ireland by PISA 2009 and we sought to understand how the test scores could have declined. When we first became aware of some of the preliminary PISA results in July 2010, we sought and received co-operation from the OECD which allowed the ERC access to OECD databases at an earlier than normal stage. This allowed us to commission the ERC to undertake a detailed review of the data. We were also able to have a second independent review completed by Statistics Canada, a leading international research agency.

The work of the ERC and Statistics Canada has shown that a proportion of the decline in test scores may be explained by changes in the populations of students taking the tests. The work of the ERC and Statistics Canada has also made us aware of the caution with which we must treat the scores of students on the PISA tests because of significant limitations in the design and underlying methodology used within PISA. Following their review of the Irish data, the Canadian and Irish experts have concluded that the techniques used by PISA "have over-estimated the size of the decline [in achievement in Ireland]." As Dr. Archer indicated, these experts have cautioned against reading too much into one single set of PISA outcomes and have advised that it is difficult to be certain that there is an underlying real decline in standards over time without further evidence. As Dr Archer has stated, other evidence regarding standards in literacy and numeracy among Irish students does not corroborate the decline in standards suggested by PISA 2009. Nevertheless, the Department is of the view that it would be unwise to ignore the possibility that there may have been some decline in actual standards of literacy and numeracy among Irish students even if not of the scale indicated by the PISA results.

It is also the case that despite the high performance of Irish students on previous international surveys, we have had concerns for some time about achievement in reading for particular groups of students and more generally about achievement in mathematics. We have had concerns arising from inspections and national assessments about reading standards among pupils in areas of concentrated disadvantage and among boys in particular.

Policy initiatives such as DEIS, the Department's action plan for educational disadvantage, have specifically targeted issues such as school attendance, literacy and numeracy, and home-school links among this group. Early evidence from evaluations of DEIS have shown that primary schools are having success in raising standards in reading to some extent and, to a lesser extent, in mathematics. Evidence from previous international surveys, school inspections and the State examinations has pointed to weaknesses in the teaching of mathematics generally. Project Maths, the initiative to reform the teaching and assessment of mathematics at post-primary level, has been specifically designed to tackle these issues.

Irrespective of the evidence from the outcomes of PISA 2009, we have to take every action possible to use the resources at our disposal to secure better outcomes in reading, maths and other skills for young people. The quality of teachers' work is critical in improving teaching and learning. The establishment of the Teaching Council in 2006 and the work it has commenced on reviewing and accrediting teacher education programmes is playing an important role in such improvement. So, too, will the national induction programme, launched in May 2010 and available to all newly qualified teachers since October last.

The launch of Better Literacy and Numeracy for Young People, a national plan for improving literacy and numeracy in schools, is designed to effect a more intensive focus on a range of co-ordinated measures to improve standards in schools. The plan sets concrete and measurable targets for improvement. It will bring major changes to how primary and post-primary teachers are educated. It sees teachers as having a responsibility to maintain and update their professional skills, just as we expect this of medical and other professionals. The plan sets out how literacy and numeracy will be prioritised in the curricula at early childhood, primary and post-primary levels.

The plan places an emphasis on the outcomes that we need to achieve for learners. It sets out very significantly improved arrangements for assessing pupils' progress at primary and post-primary levels and for reporting and tracking this progress to parents, at school level and nationally. All of these data will be important in supporting school self-evaluation, the external evaluations undertaken by the inspectorate, and general policy development and monitoring.

In addition, the Department will continue to use national and international evaluations to monitor the achievement of Irish students and improve provision. A new set of national assessments in reading and mathematics at primary level, the first round, was published last year. We look forward to receiving further analysis of the PISA 2009 outcomes from the ERC and the results that Irish students will have achieved on the PISA 2009 computer-based literacy tests in June 2011. Ireland joined the PIRLS and TIMSS international tests of literacy and numeracy for primary-school pupils in 2010. In recent years, we have not had a history of participating in the primary ones. Pilot testing was completed in spring 2010 and the full tests will be administered in schools in 2011.

Given the economic climate in which we work, the implementation of the national literacy and numeracy plan will mean re-prioritising spending and placing greater emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy over other desirable but ultimately less vital issues. Submissions from the public and interested groups on the contents of the plan have been sought before the end of January. It is for the committee to consider whether it would be appropriate for it to have discussions or receive submissions. We are happy to engage with it in the process, in whatever way it deems appropriate. I and my colleagues are happy to answer any queries that committee members may have. We have given a detailed outline of some of the issues that arise but if facts other than those we have to hand today are required, we will be happy to provide them subsequently.

I welcome the witnesses. I had hoped the Minister for Education and Skills would be present but she is not. She must answer politically for all these issues. I ask that we write to her personally to invite her to appear before the committee at the next opportunity to discuss these very significant issue.

The Minister is on duty in the Dáil Chamber at present. Perhaps we will modify our meeting time to facilitate a meeting.

I have no problem with that. The point I am making is that we should write to the Minister. My impression on the last occasion was that we were to do so. This is not a political point. We did not write to her directly. Writing directly may not be the normal procedure but I want the Minister to be accountable in this committee for the-----

I understand. The normal procedure is to write to the Secretary General. The Deputy is anxious to meet the Minister and the clerk will facilitate that. We will change our meeting time from Thursday morning to facilitate the Minister because she is on duty in the Dáil Chamber on Thursday mornings. We will let the Department of Education and Skills know. Is that all right?

We will write directly to the Minister to invite her.

The second paragraph of the letter sent to the Secretary General stated the members of the committee asked specifically that the Minister be invited to participate at a meeting of the committee. We will reinforce the invitation.

The Chairman is missing my point. It is very clear and it is not a criticism. I want the Minister to be written to personally, as Minister, not the Secretary General of the Department, to invite her.

To clarify, we have no problem doing so. We will modify the date of our meeting to facilitate the Minister.

I am very happy to hear that. The key issue is a measure of the performance of our students by comparison with students in a range of other countries.

I stress I am not being personal in stating I am very unhappy with the response of the witnesses thus far. I refer in particular to the language being used by the Department, which stated it was unwise to ignore the possibility that there may have been some decline in standards of literacy and numeracy among Irish students. It is very clear from the results of the PISA test that there has been a significant decline in our attainments by comparison with those of other countries. These results are a shame and disgrace and we need radical reform in education to ensure we will attain the highest possible standards, which we had heretofore according to all the tests. We were doing extremely well but our position has dropped significantly.

How we do in the PISA test is an indicator of how well our students will do in third level and of the extent to which they will become high achievers, receive PhDs, get jobs and attract industry to the country. We need a far more radical response than the one we have heard today. In saying that, I am not questioning anyone's personal commitment or analysis. The facts suggest we are doing extremely badly. In spite of Ireland having been in the throes of the Celtic tiger and there never having been more wealth, we are getting disgraceful results.

I want the Minister to be present because she is accountable for Government policy. What significant steps will now be taken? If we do not take steps now, we will not get the high achievers we need. I called for a fundamental review and reform of Ireland's primary and lower secondary education sectors to raise standards. This should affect teacher education, qualifications, professional development and the reform of school organisation and curricula. We need a very serious analysis of what is taking place.

One issue that arises from the results, which is referred to in the analysis, is the question of significant under achievement by males across the board. It is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed. The statistics are very significant as regards male under achievement in the Irish education sector. A high proportion of males have poor reading skills. More males than females leave school early and, on average, male candidates at leaving certificate level perform less well than female candidates. The ratio pertaining to entry to universities is 60:40 in favour of females. The prison population is largely composed of young illiterate males. These statistics have been brought to my attention in addressing this issue. We need to wake up the education system in a constructive way and we must face the reality. I respect the professionalism of everybody involved, but we must shake up the system and bring about the required change. What has happened under the Government over the past ten or 15 years is unacceptable for families and young people. If we are to get back to a leading position internationally in terms of attracting industry and of having the best qualified people available for jobs and if we are to bring about the best possible educational success and attainment for our people, we must make that change.

With regard to those who become high achievers and attain PhDs and MAs, some 75% of high achievers come from the upper half of the socio-economic classification, with only one in four from outside of that. Therefore, there is a massive deficit in the outcomes we get in education for a significant portion of our population. This is the challenge for education, for the representatives from the Department and for the Minister for Education and Skills.

The Secretary General has already confirmed my suspicion that preliminary indications in the summer of last year flagged a deterioration in performance. The Department has had access to both of the studies confirming this, to which we have referred here. We have been presented with several different documents, but the same personnel were largely involved in the production of both, Mr. Gerry Shiel, Ms Jude Cosgrove, Ms Gráinne Moran and Ms Rachel Perkins.

I will be brief because time is limited, but I hope my brevity does not betray a degree of simplicity. I thank the Secretary General for her frank and open response to the wake-up call we have all received. It has been a traditional boast here, based on nothing except our arrogance, that we have the best education system in the world. From this day out, we should recognise that irrespective of who is involved in the classroom or Marlborough Street, whether temporary employees as political appointments or permanent staff, we have a problem. The scale of the problem lies before us and we must start with that. We have been aware of elements of the problem for some time. For various reasons, working class males have traditionally been poor readers. This is not a new phenomenon, but we are now beginning to measure the level of illiteracy. I read the report with interest and would love to see the terms of reference given to the Canadian colleagues who came here for one week. Politicians have a way of looking at the statistics through the opinion polls and disaggregating partial information. However, I got a sense that the Canadians were asked in to disassemble the information emerging from the PISA 2009 research. The draft national plan, which was launched with what seemed like indecent haste between the preliminary information and final publication on 7 December, seems to be a pre-emptive strike. I hope that will not be the way we deal with the real problem which has long term significance.

I have some specific questions. I understand a national report card is available at primary school level to parents, the board of management of a primary school and post-primary schools accepting first year students. This is the equivalent of an educational passport and no first year post primary pupil should start post-primary level without this documentation or passport, which is the report card. Will the Secretary General confirm whether the making available of these report cards or educational passports has been stymied or prevented on the grounds of data protection for the individual pupils? I have received this as information but cannot confirm whether it is the case. What is the Department's attitude to that? We need to empower parents and communicate accurately with parents from the primary school system. The reason I ask about this is not a reflection either on the parents, the learning child or the teachers, but on us and where we are. How can we empower parents at junior and senior infants and through primary school to assist the teacher in helping children to be familiar with books and with reading and what can be done in that area?

With regard to some of the points made by my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, two of the worst performing countries in the PISA results are the United States and Israel. However, in terms of the factors mentioned, their academic achievements are outstanding. Israel is a good comparative country from our point of view, but I suspect that its low score in the PISA evaluation is because of its extraordinary diverse immigrant community. Most of its immigrants are learning through Hebrew or Arabic when their home language is another language. There are probably more home languages in that state than in any other country in the world. A similar but slightly different conclusion could be made with regard to the United States. Would Dr. Archer and his colleagues comment on this. The PISA results are averages, not peaks or troughs. However, there are certain lessons to be learned from them. I would be interested to hear the response to that from the delegates.

I ask members to bear with me. We will take the initial response from the delegates and then continue with further questions.

Ms Brigid McManus

I will respond first and perhaps then colleagues will come in on more detailed issues. I regret it if Deputy O'Dowd got the impression that I do not take this issue seriously. I am very concerned about it, as is Mr. Eamon Murtagh, assistant chief inspector in the Department of Education and Skills, who is Chair of the national steering group on PISA. We are particularly concerned by the literacy figures. Maths is a different issue because we were aware of the situation in that area. The results reported on literacy were a huge shock. I made a guarded comment saying it was unwise to ignore the possibility that there may have been some decline in standards of literacy and numeracy among Irish students. The reason for this guarded comment was that our first consideration was whether there was a problem with regard to sampling or the way the surveys were carried out in the schools and whether we were happy the survey was carried out correctly.

The Educational Research Centre, ERC, did the initial work on this. The reason Statistics Canada was a bit tight on time was that one must decide within a certain period whether one is happy with how the research was conducted. It can be seen from the PISA report that some countries, such as the US and others, have at times withdrawn results. Such results were not necessarily withdrawn because these countries were unhappy with them, but because when they examined the situation they discovered there was some problem with how the national agent did the testing. The question we had, and this is not a reflection on the ERC, which provides on relatively small resources a huge amount of work and data on which we base much policy, was whether there was a problem with the way the survey was carried out. We selected Statistics Canada out of the few groups that have significant expertise in this area to review it. The first job we had to do was to ensure there was not problem with how it was done. The other stuff that came out was not at all an attempt to whitewash or disassemble the report.

Did the Department link allegations of grade inflation at leaving certificate level and other anecdotal observations as possible corroboration of these findings?

Ms Brigid McManus

There is some other research that might be worth adding to the mix on the grade inflation piece. The State Examination Commission keeps a selection of scripts that are in crucial grade band areas to manage its standards over a period. We asked the chief examiner to see whether there was any evidence in English or mathematics of something happening in the borderline scripts for junior certificate students in 2003, 2006 and 2009. The view of the examiners was that they could see nothing in those scripts to show any improvement or decline. There were the same problems in mathematics for each period. The only place in which there was some evidence of a decline was in foundation level English.

Since about 2003 and the establishment of the State Examination Commission, the pattern has been that grades have actually been stable. The last jump was in 2000-01 and this was linked to the new English curriculum which was examined for the first time, which was designed to be more accessible and where there was a fairly intensive programme of teacher education from 1999 to 2001. The same cohort of students who were examined in this PISA would have been captured in the national assessments at primary level in 2005, and there was no sign of a decline.

I do not say all this because I am not taking it seriously, but it would be a simple message to say that this is terrible and that we need to do X, Y and Z. Professional advisers are telling me as Secretary General that there may be some decline, but it is unlikely to be of a certain scale and we need to be very careful about taking one event. We also consulted Mr. Tom Kellaghan, who is a former director of the ERC and who would be an expert in that area. As someone who worked previously on tax policy and spent much time dealing with international industrialists on the credibility of PISA, I was very conscious of the kind of message being sent on the basis of whether the results were right or wrong and what that would do to our international reputation.

I would not like to give the impression that in using words like "unwise" I am trying to say there is not an issue we need to address. We are planning to do further research and Statistics Canada was prepared to carry out such research, but it is not able to do it until April. PISA might show we only have a bit of a problem. Did the earlier assessments in 2000 and 2003 overestimate how good we are? Were we ever really as strong in literacy? That is a question that deals with the reliability of tests, and I will let my colleagues comment on that. Irrespective of whether we found there was a only a small decline from PISA, then that is still a problem. Even if it is not a problem, this cohort of students never benefitted from as much investment. They are the first group that had the new primary school curriculum. They had the lowest pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools. They had the highest increases in capitation over a given period. We have a bad history of investment in training and in-service, but the teachers involved with them had more continuous professional development than any other group of teachers. Even if the decline is not there in PISA, we have to ask ourselves about the level of investment in the past decade. Apart from the general investment, we also tackled the DEIS issues and made other changes in the system. We had a national reading initiative in 2000 and a revised curriculum in English and mathematics that was aimed at improving things. We had revised guidelines in learning support. It is valid to ask why our standards on the national assessments improved or why our exam results have not improved.

I take this issue very seriously. Perhaps I am too cautious as a civil servant in the way we write the thing. The plan is a kind of "heads you win, tails you lose" scenario. If we had come out with the PISA results and had not thought through some of the actions we were going to take, people would validly ask me why we had not done them. Some of the things we did were under way and some of them were things we were trying to pull together. It is not that I take personally what the Deputy is saying, but I am just trying to explain where I am coming from.

I understand that. It might be summarised that this was a rogue PISA test to some extent, but I do not accept that. Either it was administered according to the standards or it was not. Either the results are there or they are not. Evidence suggests that if we do well at PISA, we will do well economically across the board, and if we do not do well, we will not do well. We did not do well in PISA so our economic development is in question. It will not be as good as we want it to be unless we improve those results. That is my key point.

Senators Keaveney and Healy Eames wish to make two quick interventions before they make their main contributions.

I want to make my contribution because we will have votes as well. I thought the witnesses were here not to argue whether PISA was right or wrong but what we are to do. The most important thing is about what we are offering the witnesses and what they are telling us in return. I am nearly 15 years in national politics and I want to raise my old issue of the connection between music and mathematics. The provision of music education at preschool can improve children's ability to develop their skills, be that the co-ordination skills required for hand clapping, speech development or rhythmic development, that is, walking. Enhanced rhythmic development improves one's skills in dealing with mathematics and literacy, as proven by international research. However, we do not have a well developed preschool system. Is it any wonder that some children, particularly boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are unable to cope when they begin primary school? What is the situation in regard to policy development and objectives in the area of preschool provision?

In regard to music education, I am not talking about producing little musicians but about using music as a tool for personal development that has been proven internationally to be beneficial and is in use in other countries. The Crumlin violin project is a good example of a school in a tough area with disciplinary issues which has used music as a focus to provide a better forum for learning and an improved disciplinary environment. The feedback I am getting is that the children are performing better educationally because of the skills they are learning. What is the Department of Education and Skills doing in terms of assessing projects such as this with a view to mainstreaming them? There seems to be a general tapping of a hat to the fact that these initiatives work but there is no evaluative process and no strategy in terms of rolling out these types of schemes nationally.

We can argue all day long about the mistakes that have been made. I could talk at length, for example, about the lack of resource teachers in schools in the past. There was a time when one resource teacher could be responsible for six schools. However, I am interested in the action that can be taken to solve the problem rather than arguing about whether the statistics are right or wrong.

I welcome the delegates. Members may not be aware that Dr. Jude Cosgrove and Mr. Peter Archer were my partners and researchers in the production of the early school leaving report for the committee. We have a lot to be grateful for in terms of their input.

I am shocked at the findings of the PISA report. I accept that our focus must be on addressing the issues and moving on, but we must be aware too of the danger of explaining away the problem. Back in 2000 I was involved in literacy education and, as I recall, it was Albert O'Ceallaigh in the Department of Education and Skills who, on the basis that 10% of children were leaving primary school unable to read or write, introduced the national reading initiative. The findings in the PISA report might suggest that this was, in retrospect, a magnificent time for education in Ireland, but that is not the case.

To clarify one point, I understood we were given a score at some point between 2000 and 2009. Which year was that?

Ms Brigid McManus

We were given a score in 2003 and in 2006.

Why then are the data not being compared with those for 2003 and 2006 instead of those for 2000?

Ms Brigid McManus

The PISA process designates one subject in each cycle as its primary subject, which is examined in great details, with other subjects designated as minor ones for that cycle. When the OECD makes comparisons, it uses the data from the last occasion on which a particular subject was assessed as a major domain. Therefore, the OECD report compares the latest data on reading with data from 2000 because that is the last time it was designated as a major domain. Likewise, data on numeracy are compared with those from 2003 and data on science with those from 2006. It is a technical issue.

The issue that is of concern - and Dr. Archer may expand on this - is the indication that some declines which the OECD told us were statistically insignificant between 2003 and 2006, if I recall correctly----

Dr. Peter Archer

It was between 2000 and 2003.

Ms Brigid McManus

It was between 2000 and 2003. The OECD is now saying that, as a consequence of technical matters to do with how it collates data, some of the decline we are now talking about actually took place between 2000 and 2003 but was not identified by the OECD at the time.

I thank Ms McManus for that clarification. The fact remains that if the situation was bad in 2000, it is apparently worse now. I was always amazed at our impressive showing in PISA reports.

Does Ms McManus agree that a factor in the decline since 2000 is the changing face of the classroom? In the last decade large numbers of children with English as a second language have enrolled in schools. We have also had the mainstreaming of children with special educational needs. Another factor is that far greater numbers of children are now using information technology at home. In the view of the delegates how significant is the increase in children reading electronic text as opposed to paper-based text? We have done nothing substantial to invest in re-educating teachers to manage these new challenges in the classroom. Following on from what Senator Keaveney and other colleagues have said, what is the plan to address those changes in terms of serious intervention rather than just once-off training days? I left the classroom at the end of 1999, after which I was supervising teachers in classrooms. If I went back now I would be put to the pin of my collar to cope with the changing face of teaching.

The issue of lower academic achievement by boys has always been an issue in Ireland, for a long time before it was identified as a challenge in any other country. What is being done differently in other OECD countries to assist boys to perform more highly?

Ms Brigid McManus

Should I respond to Senator Healy Eames's questions at this point, Chair?

Other members wish to contribute but Ms McManus may reply to the Senator's queries at this point if she wishes.

Ms Brigid McManus

Perhaps I should take the questions in sequence and then hand over to Dr. Archer on some of the technical issues.

I get a sense from members that what they are really interested in is where we go from here. Deputy O'Dowd spoke about the need for a radical response and Deputy Quinn referred to a wake-up call. I also note Senator Healy Eames's point that we should be careful not to explain away the problem. As a committee, what we are chiefly interested in is what the future holds in terms of the action to be taken to address these issues.

We also would like to hear the views of the inspectorate. That is very important.

Yes. The discussion should focus on how we can make a difference for the 15 year olds in the education system.

Will the Secretary General also respond to the specific question on the report card or education passport?

Ms Brigid McManus

The national literacy and numeracy plan, which includes some initiatives that were already under way, represents our best shot at bringing together a set of actions that have been shown to work internationally. It is quite ambitious in terms of the type of timeframe that is envisaged. The plan is out for consultation and it may well be that members of this committee or others will say to us that we should try X and Y as well.

I will outline the broad headings in the plan and we can go into them in more detail if members wish. I revert to a point that Senator Keaveney validly raised on the issue of the early childhood piece. We have tried to capture in the plan actions on early childhood. This normally includes some of our junior and senior infants but also includes the preschool piece and the universal subsidy for the three-year olds and the Aistear framework provide a good opportunity to work with such preschools. All the research shows the earlier one gets in the better, both in respect of disadvantage and even for general performance.

As the three to four and a half year old group probably is an area that we have been weaker at tackling, we have included measures in this regard as well. This pertains to improving the professional practice of teachers and child care practitioners in teaching literacy and numeracy. While this perhaps is a different issue for teachers and some early childhood professionals, it crosses over at the early childhood stage and a set of actions is included in this regard.

There is a set of actions regarding building the capacity of school leadership to lead improvement in literacy and numeracy and to support teachers in their efforts to improve them. While the chief inspector may outline the various things we must do in these areas, both international evidence and the early work to hand on what has happened over the last couple of years in respect of the DEIS reading plans undoubtedly demonstrate that one gets a hugely improved impact with a whole school approach.

I refer to an approach driven by a principal in which questions are asked about data and results. In this regard, Deputy Quinn asked about the report card, which was introduced in 2006. The first testing, comprising standardised testing at two points in the scale, took place in 2007. As for the issue of a standardised report card to parents, it is probably fair to state that both the result of the national assessments, about which the representatives from the Educational Research Centre, ERC, might wish to talk, and the work done by the inspectorate show there is more to be done. This is an issue we mention in the literacy plan in that while the tests are being done, the reporting to parents is not as good as one might wish. The national assessments revealed a worrying view on the part of parents in cases in which students were performing very badly. When asked in the surveys and assessments, the same parents thought their children were performing very well. There is a disconnect there.

That is not a reflection on the parents' ability. Some of this is intergenerational.

Ms Brigid McManus

Yes, but it also pertains to how the school was doing the test. Two issues arise, in that either the school was not reporting or the manner in which it was reporting is problematic. This is an issue that must be considered in respect of the report card. One suggestion in the plan is that instead of simply giving parents the test results in the report card, we should almost include the level at which one might expect the children to be at this stage, which is not contained in the report card at present. We have tried and the NCCA carried out work to test that report card, which was amended and so on. However, having considered the matter, an issue exists in this regard. I know data protection issues arose with information on some other issues being transferred to second level schools. I was not aware that there were problems on the literacy and numeracy issue but I can check that.

What is the current state of play in respect of the report card?

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

The report card has been published and is being used extensively in schools. The reason the report card was published was to maintain consistency in how schools were communicating to parents and about how they were describing the performance levels of children. The issues described by the Secretary General still exist, in that not all schools are doing it. However, approximately 80% of schools are following the terms that were set down in the Department's circular.

To be specific, will this be a mandatory requirement? Will the Department require each primary school, at intervals during the course of the primary school experience, to issue to parents a report card on a standardised basis that is properly assessed, etc.?

Ms Brigid McManus

We have so required them.

Mr. Harold Hislop

I refer to the assessment. The Secretary General has mentioned the assessment piece of the national plan that has been laid out. At present, there is a requirement that students must be assessed at primary level at two points in a standardised test. The circular currently places a duty on the school to report that data to parents but the national assessments conducted by the ERC in reading found that not all schools were doing this. Moreover, our own inspections have found that even when parents are given such data, they do not always understand them properly. The national plan's suggestion is first to standardise the points at which the assessments would take place. At present, certain flexibility exists in this regard for schools over an 18-month period. Our suggestion is that this be narrowed and standardised. In addition, the information should be fed back to parents in a standardised and more complete way and better guidance should be given to parents as to what the statistics mean.

A more important part of the assessment piece pertains to what we do not do at all at present, which is to collect that information from each school. We collect national assessments on a national sample of schools, which is statistically worked out by the ERC.

What size of sample?

Mr. Harold Hislop

Approximately 140 schools participate in any single cycle of it.

Out of a total of 3,200 schools.

Mr. Harold Hislop

Yes, exactly. It is statistically constructed in order that it is representative of the population.

Ms Brigid McManus

It accounts for factors such as urban or rural and small or big.

Mr. Harold Hislop

Exactly. However, the plan suggests that these statistics be collected from each school and one could then amalgamate such data in order that one could feed back to the school both its own data and data from comparable schools. The school could then make a judgment on how good is its reading ability in these circumstances because it might be that although it is scoring very well, it actually should be doing much better, or the converse. There has been no effort to do this at present and the plan proposes to move in this direction.

Is this a league table concept?

Mr. Harold Hislop

No, quite the reverse.

That is an important distinction.

Mr. Harold Hislop

It is not a league table because it allows the school to make a judgment about its own work in the knowledge of what other similar schools are doing. It would be on an anonymous basis as one would not know what the other schools were as it would comprise nationally amalgamated data. The school would have its own results and the national comparator results.

We want schools to analyse the results their own children are getting. When we find schools doing this it is very powerful and is one of the best ways they can improve their work. Our inspections, both in incidental inspection reports and whole school evaluations, have shown that schools are carrying out the assessments of their children in reading and mathematics. However, they do not use the information arising therefrom to ask what parts of mathematics or English are being taught well or otherwise or what groups of children are doing well or less well in this school. Schools that ask themselves such questions can then move on to asking what must be put in place for a particular group of children, a particular group or class or whatever is the issue. This conversation is only taking place in a small number of schools.

May I clarify a point?

Before moving on, we will deal with two points of clarification, namely, the point raised by Senator Healy Eames and one I wish to raise.

This comes very close to what I consider to be an individual education plan, IEP. Ultimately, every child one teaches is an individual and it is not simply schools that are failing or falling but children also are falling. How widespread is the implementation of individual education plans at present in special education? It is not there by law because the EPSEN Act has not been implemented. Were we to solve this problem, ultimately each child in the country should have an individual education plan. What do the witnesses think of that?

Before the witnesses respond to that question, I wish to clarify a point regarding where we have come from. The chief inspector referred to two standardised tests and Deputy Quinn raised concerns about the position regarding reports at sixth class. At what points do the standardised testing take place? I wish to ascertain how this happens around the country. Do such tests take place at first class and fifth class?

Mr. Harold Hislop

They take place between first and second class and then between fourth and fifth class. They take place at the end of fourth or the beginning of fifth class or at the end of first or beginning of second class.

On a point of clarification, parents should expect to be called in to discuss how their children fared in the standardised tests.

Mr. Harold Hislop

They should get it in written form.

Deputy Quinn's point was on the report at the end of sixth class. In how many of the 3,200 schools can parents expect to be handed the report card in question when their children complete sixth class? Does the card go to parents, who must then pass it on to secondary schools, or is there a route from one school to the next?

Mr. Harold Hislop

The practice varies. Some schools transfer the information to post-primary schools whereas others do not. There is no standardised practice.

The committee is concerned about the question of data protection and whether it is fine to pass information on to secondary schools.

Mr. Harold Hislop

As the Secretary General stated, we will check that point and revert to the committee.

At the end of sixth class, it is too late to improve on the child's difficulties. Let us revert to the issue of teaching and how assessment information is used to teach. I asked about the individual education plan, IEP.

Ms Brigid McManus

I do not want to go over old ground, but this matter relates to Senator Keaveney's comments. Undoubtedly, there is a sensitivity in our system - perhaps it is a reaction to the UK piece - about league tables, data and the over-bureaucratisation of the system. When the tests were introduced, we wanted to collect the data centrally but that was not possible at the time. We could only roll the tests out to schools on the basis that we would not collect the data centrally. Regarding IEPs-----

I have a question. Where-----

There is a question on IEPs, Deputy Quinn has asked another question and two members, Deputy Clune and Senator Ryan, have been patiently waiting to ask questions as well.

I would like to comment on the link with music.

I have further questions that should be answered before we conclude.

I am concerned about two members who have not contributed yet. We can then revert to the other questions.

Many of the points I wished to make have been made by others. Before December, we asked about this matter during Priority Questions. The Minister's response seemed to tear the PISA results apart. Dr. Archer stated that English is not the first language of 3.6% of students. The converse is that English is the first language of 96.4% of students. As such, the point does not wash. However, I am glad to see the discussion has moved on.

When Ms McManus is responding to questions, perhaps she will address her last point on the economic climate. The Department has a draft national plan for consultation. Much of its focus is on teacher training and continuing professional development, all of which will need investment. Will Ms McManus expand on her point about the plan's implementation and the reprioritisation of spending, which will need to be done in light of the economic climate? Where will the adjustment be made?

Like other members, I am concerned by the PISA results. I wish to take a top-line approach to the issue. I used to be in charge of an Irish operation in the private sector that was subject to international assessment. The first question one should ask is whether a result like this is statistically sound. Ms McManus seems to have concluded that it is correct, so what will the Department do about it? Doing what has been done to date will not make an improvement, so something different must be done. In this instance, how will the Department measure progress? The PISA assessments are done on a three-year cycle, but the Department cannot wait another three years to see whether it has made progress. It must do something before then. This is urgent.

How do national assessments compare with PISA assessments? Is a different methodology used? If so, why is that the case? If we are to match the two assessments, they cannot be different. Do national measurements not capture the problem? If we accept the PISA results are correct, then national measures do not capture the problem. Do we need to change national measurements to reflect the PISA assessments? We probably do. If I was in charge, I would not wait three years. Instead, I would examine how PISA measures us and decide to do it the same way annually. This is the key issue. As an international assessment, people look at PISA's measurements, which reflect badly on the country and affect whether people wish to invest here in the long term.

Our guests have touched on some of the matters I have raised, but I am interested in learning how the latter fit in with my top-line approach, which is the right way to go about it.

We are keen to have three points addressed. We will revert for further clarification. The IEP point was raised by Senator Healy Eames, Deputy Clune asked what sort of difference the January closing date for the literacy and numeracy plan will make for today's 15 year olds and Senator Ryan asked what we will do differently.

Ms Brigid McManus

Some questions related to detailed matters. If I park those and give quick answers to other questions, it might help. We could then go into further detail.

I will ask Dr. Archer to deal with the details of the assessment issue. As far as the bigger picture is concerned, the national assessments are not exactly the same as PISA's. At primary level, I understand the tests are not identical, but one would expect a fair degree of correlation. The national assessments at primary level are good, but there are no international comparators because we have not participated on comparison tables. We will have further information in this regard later.

We have a bad match at second level, in that we do not have standardised national assessments for 15 year olds. Instead, the junior certificate measures different elements. One of the plan's proposals is on the need for a national assessment at that point. The problems at primary and post-primary levels are opposite.

Members touched on a number of factual issues. For example, the question regarding boys is significant and has been so across a range of issues. I am not trying to minimise it as a problem, but the gender issue is striking across many countries. For example, Finland is a top performing country, yet I was astounded to learn from our examination of the issue a number of years ago that it has a wider gender gap than we do. The gender issue poses a problem.

Is it not the case that some 60% of males do not go to third level whereas 60% of females do? It does not really matter-----

Ms Brigid McManus

It varies depending on what elements one considers. For example, if one counts the sub-degree level-----

I want to be clear. What Ireland is doing about the issue is important. What happens elsewhere might happen here as well, but what will we do about it? The key question is how will we change it. I do not care about what happens in other countries.

Ms Brigid McManus

I mentioned that because, when discussing our actions on the gender issue, international experience tells us that these actions improved literacy and numeracy levels elsewhere.

Our boys have done less well than our girls for a number of years.

According to the PISA, 25% of male students in Ireland are functionally illiterate. That means they cannot read or write.

Ms Brigid McManus

Worryingly, the PISA report indicates that the gap between boys' and girls' performance is bad across all OECD countries. There has been an increase in the average gender difference in performance at the age of 15.

It might help members if Ms McManus could explain what we are doing in Ireland to address the issue.

Ms Brigid McManus

Dr. Cosgrove may be able to comment further. Senator Healy Eames asked about the change in population.

The question is about our boys and why they have been doing poorly for a long time.

Dr. Peter Archer

As the Secretary General noted, the gender gap in Ireland is not large compared to that which exists in other countries. That does not mean the problem is not serious but in terms of the reporting of the PISA, it is the case that the gender gap in Ireland is no wider than in other countries.

They are performing very poorly.

Do we not have a significant gender gap?

Dr. Peter Archer


That is the key point and what happens in Finland does not matter. I care about what is happening in Dublin, Drogheda, Cork and Donegal. What are the figures for functional illiteracy among males? I understand 21% are not able to read or write. Perhaps I misunderstand the definition of "functionally illiterate" but it appears they cannot read or write and, therefore, participate in the workforce. Is that a fair point?

Members are asking what are we doing and what can we do.

Let us examine what the report says about these students. I ask for an answer to that question.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

Statistically speaking, which is all I can do today, 23% of boys in Ireland have reading literacy abilities of lower than level 2 on the PISA proficiency scale. That does not mean they cannot read but it indicates they are unlikely to have a level of reading that would allow them to participate effectively in further education.

Does that mean they are functionally illiterate?

Dr. Jude Cosgrove


What is the distinction between the two?

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

This is an area of debate. There is no agreement on what is functional literacy.

To rephrase the question, is it true that 23% of males cannot read a newspaper? Can they write?

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

The statistical model underlying the PISA scores is probabilistic. All we can say is probably, or more likely than not, those boys would not be able to read a complex newspaper article or fill out a detailed application form.

They might not be able to read instructions in a place of employment.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

More likely than not.

We are speaking about 15 year old boys.

We are speaking about 23% of them. This is a serious issue. Let us address it.

What are we doing now to help those boys?

Ms Brigid McManus

I mentioned the international figures because, while we can say other countries achieved big improvements in literacy by doing X or Y, we have little to draw on in terms of good practice in this area. I will ask Mr. Eamon Murtagh to explain why that is happening and what we think we can do about it.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

The current thinking is that boys do not perform as well as girls for reasons related to the way they are brought up. When they begin school, girls are already ahead of boys in terms of their ability to use language and, therefore, they are better able to learn the printed word. We are exactly at the average among OECD countries in terms of the difference between the abilities of boys and girls. Half the countries have a smaller gender gap and the remainder have larger gaps.

In terms of what we can do, boys avail of the learning supports and teaching resources offered in schools at primary and post-primary levels to a far greater extent than girls. The ratio is approximately 4:1. We are investigating issues relating to the curriculum to identify what meets boys' literacy tastes. Our experience is that school libraries are strong on books in the narrative format, which girls like, but shorter texts of a more factual nature are not as prominent.

Gender gap issues also arise in respect of tests. If boys are given texts that include short pieces of text, graphics or tables, they tend to answer them equally well as girls. However, where students are asked to summarise or generalise about longer texts, girls do better. Most of the test items in PISA are based on longer texts and thus favour girls. Our recent assessment at primary level found no difference between boys and girls in reading achievement levels at sixth class. It is a complex picture but we certainly have to do more.

I welcome the clarification. As I recognise that we cannot stay here all day, I ask the Department to provide members a summary of its strategies for change. We want to be top of the PISA ranking and for these young people to find jobs.

We have consulted the Minister's office in regard to Deputy O'Dowd's question about inviting the Minister to address this topic. Perhaps when she deals with Committee Stage we will also deal with this issue. It may help our guests if they realise we will revisit this issue shortly in order to follow up the Deputy's question about departmental strategy. Members want to know the matter is in capable hands and that something is being done about it.

Have we asked the boys themselves why reading is less appealing? That information must inform the strategy.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

Yes, we carried out a survey in 2000, which was the international literacy year, to examine the reading habits and tastes of boys and girls. It was a collaborative project with Northern Ireland and it resulted in a publication.

Dr. Peter Archer

Monitoring the extent to which children read for enjoyment is part of the national and international assessments. More recent data has been gathered, even if it is perhaps not as rich as the 2000 data.

Ms Brigid McManus

Senator Healy Eames asked about the IEP issue. This is a heavyweight matter as set out in the action plan. It would only affect a minority, even of children with special needs. Even in the good times we always said that we were pretty good at teaching to the middle. I agree that the figure of one fifth is appalling but by and large our tale was not as bad as in other countries but it was still worse than one would like. We were relatively poor at the high achievement end. From observation it became clear that teachers were good at teaching to the group but not as good at that differentiated, evidence-based material.

Much of that can only be tackled with more of an emphasis on the data we are trying to introduce and the teacher education piece. For example, one of the proposals in the document is 20 hours every five years in an ongoing continuing professional development process focused on literacy and numeracy. There are also simple elements like the summer courses done by teachers where they get time off. In considering the pattern we can see how many focus on literacy and numeracy.

I spoke about prioritising resources and there is a bit concerning extra costs and what is stopped. There is an element in everything we do of prioritising time. If we are serious about literacy and numeracy, more time must be given in the curriculum, teacher education courses and as a Department-----

I wish to ask a specific question. It has been suggested elsewhere that 30% of time in the primary school teaching day or period is devoted to a combination of teaching Irish and faith formation. Is there much control from Marlborough Street in how that time can be reallocated or do the witnesses have a comment?

Ms Brigid McManus

We can check the exact figure. The curriculum as set out by the Department has minimum periods recommended, with a discretionary time period for schools to use. We are suggesting as a first step that schools should be told to use all the discretionary time for literacy and numeracy. That is the first step that can be taken.

There will be an issue as we go on as to whether that will be enough or we need to add more pieces for literacy and numeracy. It is about choices; we can often see priorities in monetary terms but it is just as much an issue in time or capacity in the Department, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Educational Research Centre or anybody else. There is limited capacity in where time can be devoted.

Is the figure I gave accurate?

Mr. Harold Hislop

It is less than a quarter over the week. It is six hours from 28 hours.

Does that include discretionary time or is it just mandatory time?

Mr. Harold Hislop

No. Some 3.5 hours are set aside for Irish in an English medium school, where Irish is taught as a second language. There are 2.5 hours per week set aside for religious instruction. That is six hours from the week.

Is it time to reconsider that in light of the results in front of us?

Mr. Harold Hislop

The Secretary General made the point that the national plan sets out that a body of discretionary curriculum time is left.

There is discretionary and mandatory time.

Mr. Harold Hislop


In light of what we have been told, is it time to reconsider the matter?

Ms Brigid McManus

If we had to consider what could be done very quickly, I would say "Yes". In looking at the plan we examined what could be done very quickly. The discretionary time can be used. I am not saying people will not be concerned because using it for literacy and numeracy will leave less time for Irish, religion, science, drama and other elements. In the primary curriculum we indicated that literacy could be learned through drama, and one of the questions now is whether we should pull back some of the time for drama in order to give more time to literacy. There is an issue at junior certificate level if we want more time in the compulsory cycle at second level, as some kids do up to ten subjects. There is an element in the literacy plan that may bring us much grief from submissions as if we are serious about the core stuff, should there be more time for mathematics and English? Other elements must come into it, with history and geography teachers having a significant role in literacy.

If we are serious about a national plan for literacy and numeracy we must recognise that the public system and society has not been good for it. I say that as much about ourselves in the administration as others. If one thing is done, we may have to stop another.

Yes, and perhaps this could be related to some of the elements I mentioned. The Church of Ireland Protestant community has faith formation in Sunday school. That takes in the teaching of Christianity and the Old and New Testament of the Bible; it is the belief system dealt with in a generalised way in the classroom. As a result of the multidenominational nature of the reformed community, specific faith formation in the Catholic tradition, including preparation for Holy Communion and Confirmation, is a function of the parental home responsibility and the local parish church. In light of the statistics we have, is it time to reconsider that because time is a scarce commodity?

It has been put to me by the Irish Primary Principals' Network that to fast-track a literacy drive, school principals should do a special course on literacy before going back to their schools and dealing with staff in order to facilitate and encourage change. Does the witness have a view on that?

Ms Brigid McManus

It is in the plan.

Mr. Harold Hislop

The Deputy has made a very important point, and not simply because of the techniques associated with teaching children to read or mathematics.

Ms Brigid McManus

That is not the big issue.

Mr. Harold Hislop

It is not the big issue for the principal. This process would allow the principal to be the person in the school who would step back and analyse how the school is doing, where the priorities should be and what should be changed in terms of the techniques used to teach, assess and track pupils. Those are the valuable questions a principal can ask.

Ms Brigid McManus

I wish to mention the DEIS results in that regard.

A member has not spoken at all and when he makes his comments we can return to Deputy O'Dowd's point.

I apologise for having to leave to go to the Chamber. I have a comment and question. I saw in the presentation that texting was mentioned. Has any research been done into the damage done to literacy by texting? It is relevant. With regard to the description of the difference between boys and girls, with girls creating long texts and boys creating short texts, is it being suggested that the boys read tabloids and the girls read broadsheets?

Ms Brigid McManus

The boys would be more useful to economic society as they read facts.

Mr. Murtagh seems very keen to answer the question on texting.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

I am not aware of any research done on texting and I doubt the commonly held view that texting does any damage to literacy. People who are texting are engaging with literacy practices that they may not engage in otherwise. My own bet is that when we research students who text the most, we will also find they are the best readers.

That is interesting.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

The committee might be interested to note that Ireland is one of 19 countries which participated in an optional electronic reading assessment. It consisted of a 40-minute test done after the paper-based assessment. Informally, from observations of student participation in the paper-based assessment and computer-based assessment, we believe students to be much more engaged in the computer-based assessment. We strongly suspect our score on the electronic assessment will be higher than the paper-based assessment. It is a point of general interest.

I believe it is called the "Kindle factor".

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

In conjunction with those results we will have data on students' electronic reading activities. It will not necessarily take in texting but there will be a digital context for the results. We strongly suspect that the results of this assessment will be better than those of the paper-based assessment. I will mention one point - I do not know whether it is relevant to what is being talked about now but it strikes me as relevant to points made earlier. We think it is important to make the distinction between proficiency - or ability - and engagement. A student might skip questions on a test because he or she cannot do them or because he or she could not be bothered to answer them. We suspect that students are engaged to different levels in the electronic assessment and the paper-based assessment, and this is one of the reasons we are urging caution in interpreting the changes in achievement scores, particularly for reading.

Ms Brigid McManus

Was there not some evidence that boys were not answering the survey?

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

Yes. The disengagement of boys in the paper-based assessment seems to be greater than for girls. The boys seem to be more engaged in the electronic reading assessment, for some reason.

That is what Mr. Murtagh said, in a slightly different way. It is the same sort of message.

Dr. Peter Archer

That is what we are proposing. We are in the process of examining those issues and we are awaiting the results in June 2011. What has been described is our current hunch about what is going to happen.

Ms Brigid McManus

We were asked what we thought had happened. If members were to ask me for my best guess - having tossed it around, this is our best guess - I would say there has been some decline. The Educational Research Centre will tell one there is no basis for that. The PISA shows, despite all its limitations, that there has been some decline. The population factor is one issue, but it does not explain anything like the full scale of the decline. Underperforming schools are also an issue. However, the decline has probably been more than that allowed for by the various factors. What do we need to do about it? There is the question of data and the use of data. There is the question of radical reform of education, in terms of both pre-school teachers and continuous professional development. We must also make sure we continue measures in disadvantaged communities. There was some misrepresentation in the newspapers of what Mr. Hislop had said about it, which was that some DEIS schools were getting very good results while others with the same population and resources were not getting good results. It is a question of ensuring good practice everywhere.

There is also the issue for us, as a wider society and community, of how to encourage early reading and support at home. There was some mention in the national assessment of a lack of reading books. The correlation between reading skill and the number of books in a child's house has been consistently striking over the years. We have had some brief discussions on this issue, but we will have to find some way of tackling this. Successful work has been done by the National Adult Literacy Agency, for example, with sponsorship from An Post, in targeting people through advertising and increasing awareness. We should not allow ourselves to be influenced by our own experiences or by anecdotes told to us, but I personally feel that even for well educated and motivated parents it is hard to support their children in terms of numeracy. It is important to provide information for parents. The NCA did work on the primary curriculum and what one's child should be learning, but it might be useful to provide even simple aids for parents. For example, they could be provided with numeracy exercises to carry out when bringing their pre-school child to the supermarket. It is much easier for a well motivated and engaged parents to sit down with the kids and read them a story.

In that regard, I came across a website called

Ms Brigid McManus

That is right.

Unfortunately, to join one had to pay something like €100. The future is computers and online learning. That is where it starts with most families. The number of people on Facebook, as we know, is amazing. The key point is that we must change the way we do things. We must make resources available. I do not know whether one can have an equivalent to competitive mathletics in Ireland - why not? According to one figure, high-speed broadband is available in 2% of schools, although that number may have increased.

We must look at technology, including computers, and think outside the box. I understand that some schools are good and some are not so good. What access do we have through the Department's website to the schools that are performing exceptionally? I do not know what the Department does in this regard; it is something I must examine. What about promoting the best schools so that parents and people such as I can read about them? We must find out what works.

The question I was going to ask earlier is simple and relates to the acquisition of reading skill. I do not know the policy with regard to phonic analysis and so on. What is the current state of play? Years ago, phonic analysis was not done in Irish schools, although I presume it is done now. It is a question of how we learn. A teacher in the UK told me that the whole primary school experience, for the first two or three years, consists of learning through play. It is as though the children think they are actually playing. It is all computer-based, interactive education, and it is all fun. The school is an exceptional one and the experience is fantastic.

I recently attended a conference held by Apple in Dundalk about the use of cloud computing in schools. One does not need 20, 30 or 40 technicians; using cloud computing, all one needs is a computer and access to the Internet. That is probably a discussion for another day, but it is a question of changing the way we teach our children.

Ms Brigid McManus

On the question of phonics, Mr. Alan Wall, who is with us, is our ICT policy person as well as being responsible for curriculum and teachers' education. If the Deputy wishes, he can talk about that.

Mr. Harold Hislop

I will respond to the questions on the practice of teaching and encouraging good practice. Recognising good practice and encouraging it when we see it is an important part of the work that we as an inspectorate do in schools. We must say to the school community: "This is something good and it is what you need to build on". We must also tell them to do less of other things that do not represent such good practice. We do this at school level and it is in the published report and whole school evaluation. This is something we do also in our incidental inspections, when we go in for a short inspection visit. It is an important part of it.

We also take lessons from a range of inspections. For primary schools and for individual subjects at post-primary level, every so often we take a sample of reports from 60 to 80 schools, determine the best things we have seen in those schools and then publish these online and in publications. Recently, we went into disadvantaged schools. Teaching literacy and numeracy in a disadvantaged context is one of the hardest nuts for teachers to crack. We deliberately set out to find a small number of really well-performing disadvantaged schools in the worst possible circumstances. We decided on eight of those and we have published their stories. It is not an inspection report; it is a set of narratives about eight school communities. We thought teachers would read these more widely.

Could we get a copy, perhaps by e-mail?

Ms Brigid McManus

Perhaps we could get the committee a set. There are a lot of those thematic reviews.

I am pleased to hear this, it is what we need to be doing.

Mr. Harold Hislop

It is called "Effective literacy and numeracy practices in DEIS schools."

We can get copies of that?

Mr. Harold Hislop

Absolutely. We will supply copies to the committee.

That would be terrific. Thank you.

Mr. Harold Hislop

We supplied copies to all DEIS schools when it was published in 2009. It is part of the ongoing work we do in individual subjects and also for the curriculum in general. The report we published in November on the results of short inspections in schools indicated the nature of the lessons going on in English and mathematics in schools. It included the things teachers are doing well, where the preparation is good, where they are combining the right type of methodology for a given group of children and where they are using assessment well. It further indicates what is being done less well or not being done at all. It includes a checklist for the principal and school staff which asks what they are doing. This is what we encourage people to do. We have now built this into our inspections at whole school level, at post-primary level and we will build it into primary level soon.

Part of the inspection process is to inform the school community that one of the things we will examine is how well they look at the lessons and what can they learn from their own practice. It also deals with how well they look at their own practice, how they assess it in a form of self-evaluation, how well have they looked at previous inspection reports that we have carried out with them and whether they have implemented or followed on from the inspections. Unless we get to this loop of continuous questioning of how can we do the job better-----

We call them elections.

Mr. Harold Hislop


Ms Brigid McManus

That is more like league tables.

Mr. Harold Hislop

Yes it is. Deputy O'Dowd made a point about play, which is important. It is built into the Siolta and Aistear frameworks for preschools. It is more strongly in place there. The national plan for literacy and numeracy is relevant as well. Aistear and Siolta were developed ten years after the introduction of the primary school curriculum. Knowledge of practices have moved on considerably during the past ten years. The view now is that for the preschool and infant child we should replicate Aistear in the first two years of school.

Is that during junior and senior infants or first and second class?

Mr. Harold Hislop

Junior and senior infants.

This is what I was referring to. Apparently children go in and they believe they are killing spiders but they are actually manipulating computers, working out angles and so on without knowing what they are doing. I asked a question on information technology as well.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

A question was asked about phonics. I had a discussion recently with a taxi driver who informed me his children are being taught differently to the way he was taught and that he and his wife had to learn phonics to teach their children. This is a prominent part of the primary curriculum, introduced in 2000, and it is something we expect to be taught in all schools.

What about the information technology question?

Mr. Alan Wall

The Deputy is correct. There is a variability of connectivity throughout the school system. This is a function of where the market was when the contracts were placed in 2009. It is an ongoing developmental process. We will go back to the market later this year. We expect to see an improvement in the degree of connectivity, especially with schools currently on satellite, which is a poor service. It has connectivity but it is slow. We expect to see this improve because the market has improved and this gives us the opportunity to take advantage.

The issue of the cloud computing piece was raised. It is something the National Centre for Technology in Education has been considering. It has held discussions with several industry players on this issue to determine how cloud computing can benefit the school and learning community. There are certain benefits, including cost benefits. The availability of up-to-date software and various applications is relevant as well and it is something of which we are conscious. The National Centre for Technology in Education continues to explore the issue with some of the major multinationals here which are players in the cloud industry.

I have spoken to some of them. They have informed me that for €10 they can provide a copy of a particular word processing package to every student.

Mr. Alan Wall

Yes, there is a utility issue whereby one can buy it and it is available as a service.

What interaction takes place? I suppose there is plenty. We looked at an example of what is taking place in this area in the Isle of Man. We were shown 4,000 students linked in through the web to schools using cloud computing. The whole school was involved in the activity, which was great because their homework was being done and the parents could link in. It seems to be a great way of doing business. How near are we to examining these issues? How much progress are we making?

Mr. Alan Wall

As the Deputy is aware, the steering committee was involved in the Smart Schools = Smart Economy report. It is considering these issues. On the other side is the cloud, connectivity issues, the basic equipment in schools, digital resources and how they are used. We are trying to push out these four areas. The recent money that went into schools was to foster the basic equipment in schools. This is one part of the puzzle. At the other end is the digital issue. If one gets to the cloud what does one do then? This is the issue of digital materials and how they are used. Teacher training is relevant, as well and bringing this into the classroom. It is ongoing work.

Is there a published plan?

Mr. Alan Wall

Yes. The Smart Schools = Smart Economy plan relates to these issues. It refers to digital publishing.

Ms Brigid McManus

We could provide a note and a progress report on the position in this area, if that would be useful.

This is the future as I see it. If we get this right we are flying.

Ms Brigid McManus

I wish to clarify a point on data protection. One of my colleagues has checked the matter. There is no difficulty with data protection on the report card.

There is or there is not?

Ms Brigid McManus

There is not because of several legislative provisions. The Education Act requires schools to report. The Data Protection Act entitles parents to regular information on progress of children in manual or electronic form. I realise that is a separate issue. A regulation under the Education Welfare Act protects and allows one to send report and assessment information, when requested, to other teachers, schools, children, individuals and agencies involved in children's education. I realise issues have arisen. What can be requested? It could be a report on a given history, monitoring progress or attendance history. The Minister, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the National Council for Special Education, the National Educational Welfare Board, any recognised school, any designated centre for education, such as Youthreach, and certain other bodies can request it.

This is not to say there have not been issues. Data protection sometimes relates to proportionality with regard to some of the cases we have encountered in the Department. There was an issue of our using data to be collected for other purposes. Sometimes, there may be issues if one has not thought through what one wishes to use the data for. I am not saying there are no data protection issues.

Another question concerned the parents piece and the boys in DEIS schools. We can provide the committee with more. The school completion programmes are experimenting with gender differentiated activities and this relates to the retention piece. We are trying to capture information on the inspection piece as well. We have just rolled out parental questionnaires to capture what parents and students beyond a certain age think of the school. This is part of the whole school evaluation, WSE, process. I am unsure who asked me about that.

It is fine to say you are responding to a Member's question.

Ms Brigid McManus

There are a range of issues. Someone, perhaps Deputy Clune, asked about the economic issue. We spoke about the prioritisation. There is an issue. Fundamentally, this is about policy and political choices as much as it is about operational matters. Sometimes we get into a debate about the frontline versus back-room, which may not be the most helpful with regard to enhancing quality outcomes. In some ways, we have found it is just as important in terms of delivery to spend money on continuous professional development or on enabling schools to carry out data collection, as it is on the teacher in the classroom. For understandable reasons during the past, even at a time when resources were increasing and improving-----

I wish to make a specific intervention on the Department's response to the Croke Park agreement on productivity. Has enhanced hours for continuous professional development, CPD, been part of the management's suggestion?

Ms Brigid McManus

It is fair to say that. A whole set of other issues link into quality outcomes and what makes good performing systems. While we are probably comparable with other countries on the contact hours in schools - I am not saying that an awful lot is not done by teachers outside of those hours - unlike other countries we do not have a body of time outside teaching contact hours that can be directed by school management for professional development, meeting with parents, planning for children with special needs or a host of other things.

Are the great contact hours teachers have not, to a certain extent, a bit of an urban myth? Deputy O'Mahony would have been one of them. Not all or even 50% of teachers work those house. The contribution they give is extraordinary but it is not uniform across the entire body of teaching. Is that a fair observation?

Ms Brigid McManus

There are two issues. In all organisations there are people who go the extra mile, those who do the bare minimum and those in between. There is another issue. Huge commitment is made by some and others may not be doing enough. When we had these discussions some years ago, management bodies expressed a concern that if we tried to be overly prescriptive, people who are doing a lot more work would be encouraged to reduce it to a minimum. Another issue for schools is having control over that time. I do not say that as a Stalinist bureaucrat or whatever.

We would never think that.

Ms Brigid McManus

A board of management would have control over that time. Many schools manage to deal with it informally. One wants the teacher who does the school play, is wonderful with the teams and takes children on trips. My experience as a parent when my children were in primary school was that teachers involved them in primary science. Some teachers will do such things but the school needs a bank of time where if it wants to take a half day to talk about literacy and numeracy or plan, it can do so. In some ways our system-----

Or they want time after the children have gone home. If both parents are working they could work until 7 p.m. to talk about literacy.

Ms Brigid McManus

An extra day could be allocated. While the flexibility involves an extra hour a week, flexibility is needed to aggregate that in order that a half day could be used to do X or Y. The Teaching Council is dealing with an issue the committee has discussed and which is part of our plan, namely, continuous professional development that teachers would do themselves. There is also an issue for us in terms of the cost of providing some of that. Whatever about expecting them to do it in their own time, there is an issue which was raised in the take-up of project maths online and evening courses. We also took teachers out of the classroom.

They were faced with a new curriculum and a new way of doing things. While one wants it to be compulsory, people have an appetite for it and the question is how we direct it into priority areas. There is a challenge for us in terms of ensuring there is good quality provision which matches the CPD. We did things in project maths and there were good practices.

I have heard the ERC argue passionately about it. Apart from statistics, if a teacher is willing to study numeracy professionally where does he or she go? It is something of which we need to do more.

Before I go to Dr. Archer for closing comments, I wish to ask Ms McManus about project maths. We debated literacy at length today. The report was a huge shock for her. I presume she was aware that project maths was a response to problems with numeracy. I wish to ask Ms McManus a question which she may not be able to answer today but she can revert to the committee. I have been a first-hand witness of project maths for the past three years and I am concerned about its materials. They are excellent and working very well. It is the way to go and I am 100% behind project maths.

The young people who are studying junior certificate project maths this year do not have backup material to show what type of question they might expect in the paper. They do not have past papers because there are none. In the classrooms there is a focus on paper 1 and half of paper 2 which contain no project maths. A good amount of work is done on project maths on the board but there is no real information on how it will be tested. I was concerned last year when I saw what happened in the pilot schools and I am concerned how the teachers and pupils, especially those in the pilot schools, are managing the issue.

I would like the question to be dealt with at departmental level because I am worried about it. I have asked several parents and teachers how the programme is playing out. I know the Department cannot produce ten past papers for the past ten years when it does not have them. I am not so foolish as to think we can manufacture them overnight. When the issue was first raised with me I wondered why it was such a big deal but as I examined it more closely, including discussing last year's leaving certificate with pupils, I found there was a difficulty in the pilot schools. It is a wonderful curriculum but there was a worry about how it is playing out in the early years.

Ms Brigid McManus

Perhaps I could make a comment and ask other delegates to speak. I smile slightly. I have a personal as much as departmental observation to make. We have had many debates on the junior certificate and trying to make schools and teachers autonomous in their curricula and give them freedom. Project Maths is a hugely exciting and essential project. Apart from the huge drive to pull all the elements together and managing the project, an official in our Department chairs a group to try to make all the elements work. The implementation of such a scheme is a huge management and process project to deliver in the very short and difficult timeframe we have for curriculum reform.

The theory was to work with project schools - I am a not an expert and will let the experts comment - and get them to help to design the curriculum. It is very important to test things but it is fair to say that in the roll-out of the pilot schools and the reports we received, the major concern was that the curriculum would be written down and the sample questions given to teachers. The State Examinations Commission had a significant involvement in helping to design and implement project maths.

Apart from the importance of project maths for mathematics, the process will probably create issues on which we have to reflect that will be essential to the kind of project we are embarking upon in junior cycle reform. It might be easier to do it where the stakes are not as high. The exams are high stakes and teachers are concerned about their pupils not being disadvantaged in the competitive system of entry to higher education.

We produced sample papers for the pilot schools. They are not produced by the State Examinations Commission but they are equivalent to its standards.

Was that for the leaving certificate?

Ms Brigid McManus

Yes. The pilot schools were involved in designing the curriculum and the sample papers for them arrived at a certain point in time. In the roll-out for schools there are not just last year's paper but also others. A large amount of material is available on websites and in hardback copies. Unfortunately, there is a cohort who might find it more comfortable physically. One of the major processes in teacher education is to pull together supports for pilot schools and to design materials showing up the issues and how they feedback, allowing us to make amendments as we went along. One question proved problematic, the optional choice, even though the basic philosophy of Project Maths was to cover everything.

I am a bit concerned about the material. The maths textbooks for leaving certificate and junior certificate do not include Project Maths, the teacher must go elsewhere for the material and, unless students are misguiding me, they are unaware of sample papers.

Ms Brigid McManus

That is a bigger pilot. The pilot ones arise because the curriculum is developing so it is only a certain point. For the 24 schools this is almost a live experiment.

I know that but the stakes were high for the students who did their leaving certificate last year. There was a high failure rate in the mock exams last year among those students and there was a lot of worry as a result. If we can avoid those problems this year, it would be better. Are there sample papers for the 24 schools?

Ms Brigid McManus

Each year we add more. The concern relates not to those areas being examined generally but the second phase.

I am concerned about the students in the 24 schools who are taking part in the pilot scheme. Do they have any idea how the project will be examined?

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

The availability of sample questions was one of the concerns that was raised by the project schools. Project Maths is being rolled out in three phases, with the first phase being the examination of the first cohort last year and sample papers were available to them. The support team is now producing additional exemplar material for schools. They are being provided electronically and in hard copy to teachers attending support seminars.

Does Mr. Murtagh know when they will be available? We are late in the year now.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

I will have to check but it was my understanding they were to be made available early this year.

We are three weeks away from the mock exams and they have no sample papers. That is my worry.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

I can check but I am almost sure they have sample papers at this stage. I will confirm that later today.

We dedicated most of the meeting to literacy but we are aware of the wonderful work being done with maths. Project Maths is wonderful but for the 24 schools it is a challenge.

Ms Brigid McManus

We are very conscious of that.

On the first page of the presentation there was a reference to science that stated some students who take the PISA science test do not study science in school.

Ms Brigid McManus

There would be a percentage of students who do not study science for the junior certificate who would be included. PISA is done using a sample of all students in a school so the student is examined on literacy, maths and science knowledge whether or not he or she studies science. In spite of the population factors that would have pulled down science in a similar fashion, it remained the same. It is the first time students have come the full way through the new primary school curriculum in science and reached junior certificate.

I thought science was mandatory up to junior certificate level.

Ms Brigid McManus

No, it is not. In practice, because of school logistics, it is mandatory.

Mr. Harold Hislop

About 87% of students take science in the junior cycle but it is not mandatory. We introduced it as a component part of the primary school curriculum in the 1999 primary school revisions so this is the first cohort of students to have benefited from curriculum changes at primary level, the intensive in-service teacher training in science and the introduction of a revised syllabus for junior cycle science.

Ms Brigid McManus

If one looks at the junior certificate results last summer, science results indicated signs of improved standards. It shows that it is possible through a mix of teacher training and curriculum reform to make a difference. The junior certificate was more hands on. Project Maths gave rise to the same issue that we came to when looking at the revised junior and leaving certificate science curricula, where we changed to a more hands-on approach, of how this would be examined. It was only when the pilot schools saw the sample papers last year that they accepted assessment would also be done differently.

The witnesses referred to the new draft plan for literacy and I would like to take part in the planning for that. We need not have a committee meeting but we could arrange something in-house.

I would also be happy to be involved in that. We will open it to members to become involved if we arrange something like that on an informal basis.

It is too important an opportunity to miss so perhaps the secretariat could organise it.

Ms Brigid McManus

We will organise a presentation on the contents of the plan. We will be doing workshops at the end of January for stakeholders and if any committee members would like to attend, they would be very welcome.

Is it best to do that before the closing date for submissions?

Mr. Harold Hislop

We can do it at the convenience of the committee but we hoped most of the workshops will happen in February and March.

We should not do it in March.

We might lose some members so the earlier the better.

We should do in the next ten days subject to everyone's availability.

The earlier the better. About 8 a.m. would suit me.

Will this be a presentation followed by input from committee members?

They may offer us an observation. An early morning session on a Wednesday or a Thursday would suit. The Senators are here on a Tuesday night. A meeting at 8.30 a.m. for an hour and a half, finishing at 10 a.m. would be suitable.

Mr. Harold Hislop

We will certainly be able to do that.

It will be a presentation or a sharing of information.

Ms Brigid McManus

It can be the start of a process, following which people may want to go away and think about it and they may wish to feed into it or come back to us.

I thank the delegation.

The literacy draft plan has a closing date of 30 January. It was interesting to hear members sharing their views. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames and I would have thought science was mandatory in every school. We all have different views on issues. Earlier the Secretary General referred to junior cycle as having ten subjects. I said I know of a school which has 11 subjects. Perhaps there are some schools that have nine subjects. The only reason that is important is that if we are talking about making more time available for literacy and numeracy there may be scope within the number of subjects being studied in different schools. That issue needs to be addressed.

Dr. Peter Archer

Before we conclude I issue one general clarification and will address two or three specific questions that were raised and not answered. The general clarification is on the work we have been doing in the centre on PISA, since the PISA results became available a few months ago. We are trying to understand what we see as a very surprising set of results. We are not in the business of explaining away the findings, which is a phrase that was used by one member. It is an independent research institute which approaches all the issues we investigate without an agenda.

On that point, my colleague, Senator Brendan Ryan, used to head up the Coco-Cola plant in Ireland and was being constantly measured and assessed. That is why he responded in the way he did.

Dr. Peter Archer

Absolutely. I understand that. Deputy Ruairí Quinn asked about the role of Statistics Canada and the work it did recently. It was given two aspects of PISA to look at, one of which was sampling. We had a concern, and the Department may have had a concern, that some of the decisions we had to make in regard to sampling for 2009 might have affected the comparison with 2000.

Ms Brigid McManus

A civic survey was taking place at the same time. The sample was not a factor but we had taken the sample from only half the schools for technical reasons.

Was that due to sampling fatigue?

Dr. Peter Archer

Most large scale surveys would require a sample of approximately 120 to 160 schools which is a large percentage of the post-primary schools in Ireland; there are only 740. Some schools, particularly the large ones, end up being selected for many surveys, so that survey fatigue becomes an issue. It came in and looked at the sampling and was able to reassure us that the findings were unlikely to be the result of any work we had done in that regard. It then went on to look at the very technical aspects of scaling and how change is measured over time. It was there it gave us reasons to be particularly cautious about interpreting the results. By any standard, the work is of a high standard but it is not completely out of the blue. What it says about scaling and the measure of change in PISA reflects growing concerns within the research and measurement community generally, not about PISA in general or much of what PISA does extremely well but concerns about its capacity to measure change.

My experience of statistics over the past 15 years or so has been predominantly opinion polls in regard to politics. Whatever about the sample, the base and the distortion - this is a view shared by people like me - the underlying trend is what one should seek.

Dr. Peter Archer


Notwithstanding all those qualifications - I did not know they were undertaken from a professional point of view because it was a surprise result - the underlying trend is the one for which we must have regard. That seems to be a wake-up call to use the phrase we used earlier.

Dr. Peter Archer

That is the reason that at the end of our presentation we referred to the results of the forthcoming electronic survey. In 2012 the results of the PIRLS and TIMSS - the primary school equivalent of the PISA - will be available. Deputy Quinn raised a question about the high percentage of immigrants in the US and Israeli populations. That is true. Dr. Jude Cosgrove gave me figures indicating that 25% of the sample in the United States is Hispanic and they take the reading test in English. That is the kind of factor which leads us as researchers to wish the league table aspect of PISA was not the one that got all the attention. Because countries vary so much in so many important ways, such as the homogeneity of their population, the league tables can be extremely deceptive in this area.

On that point, I am not an academic, I have the reference here to PISA studies. Hanushek and Woessmann claim that a country's comparative economic performance is directly correlated through a proportion of high achievers in the cognitive skill test for 15 to 16 year olds. Is that a racket or not?

Dr. Peter Archer

I would be very surprised if it was not. I do not see the need-----

That applies to our results as well.

Ms Brigid McManus

Not the PISA but the research on the achievement.

This is done on the PISA studies. I am trying to make the point that there is an elephant out there called PISA.

Ms Brigid McManus


It is still there no matter what colour we paint it. It is the elephant in some respects.

Dr. Peter Archer

One must be careful. We look at the underlying trend and we look for corroborative evidence. We like to think this is science but it is not precise science. There are variables. Senator Healy Eames referred to the changing face of the classroom in Ireland and the growing number of immigrants. In a subsequent question, Deputy Clune rightly pointed out the proportion of children who-----

-----have some other language.

Dr. Peter Archer

That is the vast majority. That is something that needs to be borne in mind as we look at these and subsequent findings.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

Deputy O'Dowd referred to the relationship between economic success and achievement. We need to be careful about ecological fallacy. It is a phenomenon whereby, depending on the level at which one looks at relationships between X and Y, one can point out different patterns of relationships. That said, there is a very interesting Canadian longitudinal study, results of the latest wave of which will be available later this year, entitled the Youth and Transition survey. It tracked children who did PISA in 2000 every two years or so. I understand that last year it gave them the PISA test a second time, so that it has a huge amount of data on these children. There are about seven countries that are adding a longitudinal component to PISA. The point I am trying to make is that PISA in and of itself does not have predictability. It cannot say with any certainty that a high achieving-----

The inverse is not-----

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

One could not say the inverse either.

I accept these as a benchmark in time of what happened in Ireland.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

But the Canadian-----

The results are not good enough and there are all sorts of reasons for it. I think you are tacking the change in significant ways. That is the way I am trying to look at it.

Dr. Jude Cosgrove

The Canadian study is very interesting because it shows, even after adjusting for a multitude of economic educational factors, that children who do better on PISA are more likely to go to university. That might be worth bearing in mind.

It is not the number of years in education but the cognitive skills of students that is the measure.

Ms Brigid McManus

In response to Deputy O'Dowd, and it will be of interest to Deputy Quinn, there was very interesting research conducted in the University of Limerick in 2009, where they had tested all entrants on maths and correlated the data over a decade with the leaving certificate maths standard. They were considering the question of grade inflation. They looked at the students' capacity on a different test to maths and over a period they looked at whether performance on that test matched. We did not reference this in the document, but we will provide the Deputy with the reference.

Mr. Harold Hislop

It is footnoted in the main submission.

Ms Brigid McManus

What they found was that the performance of students with a lower attainment in maths correlated with the performance in a different maths competency examination. Over the decade there was a decline in the standard of the entrants and some of that may reflect the fact that the points went down for computing and such courses, when they were seen as less economically attractive. I mention that research because it is an independent look at the topic of grade drift, but it has only been in place for a decade.

We are back to where we started: Lies, damned lies and statistics. All of this comes with a health warning but in the absence of any other reliable quasi objective system of measurement, it is the only measure we have and we must accept the trend.

Mr. Harold Hislop

It also makes the point of the importance of good quality national data and collecting it systematically. That comes with a cost and requires investment.

We have national assessments at primary level which are tracking that progress for us. We need a similar collection and analysis of data at the post-primary level as well and it would reap rewards to have that because one is then in a much better position to make judgments on the validity of international surveys.

On that very point, if on future birth certificates, there was not only the current level of data but the educational level of parents, whether primary, secondary or tertiary, that would be a fair indication of predictive possibilities.

That would take years.

I thank the Secretary General and her officials from the Department of Education and Skills and Dr. Peter Archer and his colleagues for attending this meeting. There has been a good exchange of views and we will follow up next week by looking at the plan in detail. I hope we will meet the Minister very shortly thereafter. This is a very serious issue and one of the key points made by the Secretary General is that the Department will have to consider that more departmental time will be given to this issue and more time will be allocated to aspects of literacy and numeracy in teacher training colleges. The committee would welcome progress on this very important issue.