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So why have standards in our schools system plummeted?

Global rankings deliver a blow to our education Pupils here are 33rd out of 65 countries in maths They're 25th in reading and 24th in science Worldwide comparison puts Vietnam above us

By Anna Maguire

Northern Ireland's education system has gone from being a UK leader to being average and under-resourced, an international study has revealed.

The results of the international league table, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), has highlighted the gulf between success in the primary and post-primary sectors, re-igniting questions around the legacy of selection at 11.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has rated Northern Ireland 33rd out of 65 participating countries in maths, significantly below the average of the countries assessed and UK counterparts England and Scotland.

Local pupils also came in 25th in reading and 24th in science.

Northern Ireland consistently produces some of the highest A-level results in the UK, but also has one of the highest levels of people leaving with few qualifications.

Opinion is divided on whether our position is being held up by the high standards of the results produced by grammar schools or being dragged down by the long tail of under-achievement.

Grammar schools had an average of 94% of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C in 2010/11 – outperforming non-grammars, which had an average of 36%.

Educationalists and teaching unions said the results – which mark the second time Northern Ireland has been rated as average in the past six years – call into question our reputation as a leader in education.

They have called for an injection of resources and policy initiatives to bolster post-primary schools, which now lag behind the Republic of Ireland and burgeoning economies such as Vietnam.

While Northern Ireland sits at the middle of the international league table – below first-time entrants Vietnam and Shanghai – the Minister of Education said the results confirm that too many 15-year-olds are "performing at the lowest levels" in numeracy, literacy and science.

In a message to Northern Ireland's grammar schools, Education Minister John O'Dowd said the PISA results "deliver a clear challenge to those who claim our education system delivers academic excellence".

"The primary sector, which performs at the top end of international comparisons, does not divide children based on social selection," he said yesterday.

"The international evidence already showed that social division is bad for the educational outcomes of all children and today's figures bear that."

But the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), which represents voluntary grammar schools, said the Sinn Fein Education Minister has interpreted the survey's findings to reinforce his support of a non-selective system.

"PISA reports have shown that the current system of selection has much to its credit and is the basis for university entrance of the highest proportion of young people from socially diverse backgrounds in the UK," GBA director, Nuala O'Neill, said.

"Northern Ireland's education system is often criticised by those who advocate moving to a more comprehensive model. Yet again the minister has selectively interpreted PISA data for ideological reasons."

The study also confirms Northern Ireland's ingrained problem of underachievement, referring to gap between the comparatively small number of high achievers and the relatively high proportion of students who do not secure five 'good' GCSEs.


The Programme for International Student Assessment is a survey of educational achievement, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It focuses on the ability of 15-year-old pupils to adapt their knowledge to problem solving and real-life challenges. The survey is carried out in a three-year cycle and looks at the key areas of reading, maths and science.

We need standard tests in basics

Despite a raft of government policies to bolster the education system, and specifically the post-primary sector, Northern Ireland remains stuck in the middle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league table.

The Department of Education has said it is too early to measure the impact of such policies – including the revised curriculum – the impact of which will be revealed in 2015, five years after it was rolled out.

But education commentator and former post-primary principal Michelle Makem has called for new qualifications to train children in everyday English and maths – a key focus for PISA, which measures 15-year-olds' ability to apply their knowledge in real-life situations.

"These results show that we are not world-class, we are not achieving in the way we should be," the former English teacher said.

"It does not surprise me that we have not jumped, because we are not doing anything different from what we were doing in 2009. What we need are standardised tests in functional numeracy and literacy to be brought in alongside GCSEs."

The PISA result also highlighted the gulf between Northern Ireland's primary and post-primary systems.

Last year, two league tables, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), put Northern Ireland's primary pupils fifth in reading out of 45 participating countries, and sixth highest in maths and science.

Syllabus changes have an impact

The Republic has leapfrogged Northern Ireland in the international study of education systems across the world.

In 2010, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) ranked the reading ability of 15-year-olds in the Republic in 17th place out of 39 countries.

The drop was a significant decline, from fifth place among 39 countries a decade previously.

Pupils' achievement also fell in maths.

Yesterday's results marked a notable improvement.

The Republic's pupils jumped to seventh out of 65 participating countries in reading.

Irish teens came 15th in science and 19th in maths, notably higher than Northern Ireland, and a rise on 2009 and 2006.

Northern Ireland has been ranked 33rd in maths, 25th in reading and 24th in science, out of the 65 participating countries.

Policy makers in the Republic attribute their improvement to the introduction of new school science syllabuses more than a decade ago.

However, Department of Education officials said it was too early for the impact of the new maths syllabus, Project Maths, to be felt in the Republic – pointing ahead to PISA results in 2016.

Avril Hall-Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said the difference between here and the Republic is also a matter of resources.

"The Republic has increased teacher numbers and training, whereas we have taken away professional development and run down our CASS (education boards' support) services," she said.

The stark message this study sends to us

Earlier this year we rejoiced at the very high achievements of our young people in the primary sector. Northern Ireland was right up there with the best in the OECD countries in the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) league tables.

Unfortunately when we look at the PISA league tables, Northern Ireland is dismally low – below the OECD average in mathematics and below the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England in reading.

What happens to our pupils between primary school and the age of 15 that suddenly turns success to failure? Could it be our selective system?

Those who support the retention of this anachronistic process that potentially demoralises half of the population at age 11 need to consider carefully the message the PISA study is sending us. Why do pupils who perform outstandingly well in the environment of a "comprehensive" primary school not carry this high performance through to secondary level?

This is not the only factor that we must consider. If we look at the performance of pupils in the Republic the story is different.

They show consistently improved performance levels and I believe that there may well be a link between this and extra teaching resources.

In the south extra teachers were appointed in the 'boom days' and mostly retained. In contrast, Northern Ireland has reduced staff numbers.

Worse still, the uncertainty around Education and Skills Authority has left education in limbo. That, combined with cuts, has resulted in reduced support for schools and virtually no professional development for teachers.

We need to learn lessons fast – or face the prospect of sliding further down the OECD ladder. We need to focus on moving forward. Our young people will not thank us if we get stuck in a time warp.

Follow European example, says MLA

School hours and holidays will be reviewed in a bid to boost Northern Ireland's economic competitiveness.

The Assembly has asked the education minister to examine school opening hours, including holidays and training days.

Proposing the motion, Sinn Fein's Michaela Boyle, who sits on the Assembly's education committee, called for Northern Ireland to follow the example of other European countries.

She urged Northern Ireland to follow the example of France, who are considering reducing summer holidays by two weeks, and the Germans, who have increased classroom time for students.

"Other countries are now making moves to increase their competitiveness. We must follow suit or we will be left behind," she said.

Ms Boyle pointed to the results of an international league table carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was published yesterday.

The results revealed that Northern Ireland's post-primary schools' performance in reading, maths and sciences remains average among the 65 countries which took part, without any improvement since the last study three years ago.

"With the market for skilled jobs becoming ever more competitive, and if we are to have a fighting chance in the global race, we need to be producing students who are able to compete not only with their European contemporaries, but with such countries as South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong," Ms Boyle said.

"The PISA test shows that those countries persistently outrank us in their reading, mathematical and scientific abilities. I will take maths, for instance. In the latest tests, in 2009, China topped the scale with a score of 600. Other countries are now making moves to increase their competitiveness.

"The French are looking to reduce summer holidays by two weeks, while in Germany, they have been increasing classroom time for students. We must follow suit or be left behind

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