Still an island of literary scholars

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The study – which forms part of the Programme for International Student Evaluation (PISA) – compares the performance in reading, maths and science of 400,000 teenagers across 57 countries. More than 4,500 students in 165 schools in the Republic took part.

The report places Ireland fifth for reading and literacy out of 29 countries in the OECD, and sixth out of a total of 56 countries from which the data was collected.

It shows Irish 15-year-olds slightly above average in science, and finds that the Republic has the highest level of environmental awareness in the OECD.

The results show a better than average performance from students in some schools, including fee-paying schools and boarding schools. But it says these schools benefit from the "advantages" their students bring to school, including a family background that values academic performance.

It praises the strong performance of first-generation immigrant students in the Republic, one of the few OECD states where they attain the same level as native students.

However, Ireland's ranking in maths – just above the OECD average at 22nd out of 57 countries – is a cause for concern. Minister Mary Hanafin said we need to see higher achievers in other subjects "doing much better in maths".

Siobhan Masterson, of IBEC, urged the Minister to "sign off on the proposed new Junior and Leaving Certificate maths curricula to ensure that they can be introduced without further delay". Innovative ways of teaching maths need to be developed, Ms Masterson said, and supported through investment in the professional upskilling of maths teachers.

Kathryn Raleigh, director of IBEC group ICT Ireland, notes that the report questions whether our achievements in maths could be improved by a greater take-up of higher-level maths.

"We have called for the reintroduction of bonus points for the subject, as a means of boosting its attractiveness to students," Ms Raleigh said. 

The fact that Ireland's science ranking remains stubbornly hovering around the OECD average, at 20th out of 57 countries, is also causing concern.

"Ireland has slipped a place in science, which is disappointing," said Kathryn Raleigh. 

The top performing countries across all subjects are Finland, Hong Kong/China, Canada, and Korea.

The Irish findings are summarised in Ready for Tomorrow's World? The Competencies of Irish 15-year-olds in PISA 2006, compiled by Eemer Eivers, Gerry Shiel and Rachel Cunningham of the Educational Research Centre in Drumcondra. (Sources: Irish Times, Examiner, Independent)