Ireland showed the most improvement in science, moving up five places to ninth position amongst 34 OECD countries, according to the latest OECD PISA study.
In the latest findings, Ireland ranked 13th in maths, up from 26th place in 2009, and fourth in reading, up from 17th place in 2009.
However, despite the strong improvements, business body IBEC has warned Ireland can never allow itself to grow complacent again when it comes to quality education and performance.
The OECD’s PISA 2012 tested more than 510,000 students in 65 countries and economies on maths, reading and science. The main focus was on maths.
The OECD said maths proficiency is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults. It influences their ability to participate in post-secondary education and their expected future earnings.
Shanghai-China, and Singapore were top in maths, with students in Shanghai scoring the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above most OECD countries. Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were also in the group of top-performing countries.
“With high levels of youth unemployment, rising inequality and a pressing need to boost growth in many countries, it’s more urgent than ever that young people learn the skills they need to succeed,” said OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría.
“In a global economy, competitiveness and future job prospects will depend on what people can do with what they know. Young people are the future, so every country must do everything it can to improve its education system and the prospects of future generations,” Gurría said.
The findings have been welcomed by IDA Ireland chief executive Barry O’Leary.
“One of the primary reasons cited by IDA clients for establishing their operations in Ireland is the availability of skilled labour," O’Leary said. "A large number of FDI (foreign direct investment) companies seek graduates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It is encouraging to see students at second level score significantly above the OECD average in print mathematics and science in 2012.”
As many of the world’s leading multinational companies continue to select Ireland as a leading location for their FDI, O’Leary said it is important to consider where the best job opportunities for the future will lie. Based on current job creation trends within Ireland, sectors like information and communication technology (ICT), digital media and language-based business courses are likely to provide strong career opportunities for students in the years ahead.
O’Leary said students planning now for their future careers need to take this growth into account and consider which sectors will house the greatest FDI job opportunities in the coming years.
“IDA Ireland recognises that while the results are encouraging and on the right track, it is important that Ireland Inc enhances its competitive edge in the STEM sectors to ensure that we continue to attract quality investment from leading global corporations,” said O’Leary.
How to build a world-class education system
The OECD PISA survey reveals several features of the best education systems. Top performers, notably in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together, and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them.
There is plenty of food for thought for education policy-makers in Ireland.
“Given the pivotal role that science and technology will play in future economic growth, the science scores are particularly encouraging,” said IBEC’s head of education policy Tony Donohoe.
“However, the maths and reading results must be viewed as recovering lost ground on our dismal performance in 2009. In absolute terms, the maths and reading scores have not improved since Ireland first participated in PISA in 2000.
“The under-performance of higher-achieving students in maths is a matter of concern. Export-led high technology companies are performing remarkably well, despite the recession. However, their future in Ireland will depend on sufficient numbers of suitably qualified graduates. For students to pursue these disciplines, they must have a strong foundation in higher-level maths at secondary school.”
Donohoe said that overall, the results are certainly a move in the right direction.
“The Government has recently introduced a number of critical education reforms, including the literacy and numeracy strategy, Project Maths and the new junior cycle curriculum. Adequate resourcing and effective implementation of these initiatives are critical. We should see their impact in the next PISA study in 2015,” he said.
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