Investment in education is paying off

 Nicholas Mizilin, St Colman's College, Fermoy, Co Cork. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

The results in PISA 2012 science tests have been hailed as testament to the long-term returns from Ireland’s investment in teacher training and curriculum reform in the subject.

The fact that scores in this test have risen dramatically over those in 2009 is being held up as evidence that the introduction of science as a primary subject in 1999 and the 2003 revised junior cycle syllabus have been successes.

But Department of Education chief inspector Harold Hislop said it is too early yet for PISA to show any outcomes from the literacy and numeracy strategy — being rolled out at primary and second level since 2011 — or from Project Maths.

The new second-level syllabus is only in place since 2010. The Educational Research Centre (ERC) at St Patrick’s College in Dublin will publish analysis next year of how students at the 23 schools teaching Project Maths on a pilot basis since 2008 have fared in PISA 2012.

“The science [pattern] shows it wasn’t a spectacular improvement. It was slow, steady improvement and now it’s paying results, having made investment and very radical change at an earlier point,” Mr Hislop said.

“Now, if we could get the same sort of radical change into maths through Project Maths, and the same sort of thing into reading standards generally, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be one of the top-performing countries,” he said.

However, ERC research fellow Gerry Shiel said we need to pull our socks up on teaching and learning through new technology, as most tests will be computer-based next time around in 2015.

This is likely to mean a particular emphasis on the kind of algebra, geometry and spatial reasoning questions that fall under the Space and Shape category — the only one of five examined in PISA maths in which Irish teens were below average.

In fact, our 15-year-olds scored significantly below average on this sub-scale, with the average student here scoring 12 points lower than the OECD average of 489.

Our rankings were less impressive on computer- based maths and on digital reading than in print versions of these subjects.

It may be no coincidence that Mr Quinn was emphasising the need for a better and more standardised approach when it comes to IT use in the classroom when he launched consultations for a new Digital Schools Strategy on Monday. One of the increasing number of concerns about his junior cycle reform plans is that schools will not be equally equipped to allow students engage in ICT, which may impact our international rankings in the future.

“It is particularly important that students would be engaged in assessments involving the computer,” Mr Shiel said.

“Currently, the junior cycle is assessed on a paper and pencil basis and the students may not be motivated or may not have the levels of practice that might be necessary to do well on a computer-based test,” he said.

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