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Educational Research Centre (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 806 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue] Nonetheless, the report says that "fourth class pupils in Ireland living in smaller rural areas did better on average in reading, mathematics, and science than those attending schools in more populated urban centres, whereas the opposite is true internationally". It would appear that the Irish experience bucks the international trend in this regard. The report also noted that the higher level of bullying in DEIS schools does not apply in rural DEIS schools.

The report also poses challenges with regard to science and maths. Irish pupils spend considerably less time than the international average in science lessons, regardless of whether the official curriculum or the curriculum as implemented by teachers is considered. In maths, the report found that insufficient time is devoted to teaching problem-solving, that the curriculum is out of date and that Irish pupils are not learning essential skills that are being taught in other countries. This may be a contributory factor to Ireland's below-average international standing in maths at second level. I would be interested to hear the response of the Minister of State and of the Department to this wide and extensive report, which provides us with much food for thought.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon): Information on Ciarán Cannon Zoom on Ciarán Cannon I agree with Deputy McConalogue that this report presents us with much food for thought. I welcome the research published by the Educational Research Centre on Ireland's performance in PIRLS and TIMSS. Such international studies enable us to benchmark the achievement of our pupils with those in other developed countries. They are invaluable as we roll out our strategies and plans for the future. That is why participation in the PIRLS and TIMSS international assessments was one of the key actions identified in the national literacy and numeracy strategy. It is good to note that Irish pupils performed very well in PIRLS and TIMSS. Our performance in English was excellent. Pupils in just five countries performed significantly better than our pupils in English reading. Irish pupils scored significantly above the international average in both mathematics and science. The new report provides more detailed analysis of the home and school environment factors that impact on teaching and learning in these areas.

The report identifies main positive elements in our educational system. As Deputy McConalogue mentioned, our pupils feel safer in school. There are very few discipline issues in our schools, compared to other countries. Irish pupils also have more positive attitudes to reading and science than the international average. We have a relatively young cohort of teachers, and they report high levels of career satisfaction. The report recognises that Irish parents are actively involved in their children's education. Nevertheless, the report also identifies a number of areas for improvement. We spend significantly less time on science than the average in other countries. Our teachers report below average confidence in their ability to teach science. In maths, while our pupils rate well on number and knowing, they do not rate as well on shape and space, measures and problem solving. While the incidence of bullying is lower than in other countries, there are differences in this regard between genders and types of school. Pupils with English as an additional language tend to report more incidents of bullying. Our teachers also report significantly lower levels of professional collaboration than their peers internationally.

We need to bear in mind that these assessments were administered in 2011 prior to the publication of the literacy and numeracy strategy. In line with that strategy, we have increased the time available for the teaching of English and mathematics. We have taken steps to enhance initial teacher education and continuing professional development for teachers in these areas. Some colleges are providing for additional specialisms in science education. While the report notes that our curriculum predates that of many other countries, both our mathematics and science curriculums have been mapped very well against international benchmarks. Work is well under way to revise our languages curriculum with the integrated language curriculum from junior infants to second class, which is due for publication in 2014.

Other developments have taken place. A new reporting system has been introduced in primary schools to ensure parents get meaningful information about the progress and achievement of their children. In line with the action plan on bullying, we hope the roll-out of new anti-bullying procedures to all schools this September will see further progress made against bullying in our schools. With regards to enhanced collaboration among teachers, the recent introduction of school self-evaluation is designed to promote teacher collaboration as they review current practice, identify strengths and areas for development and implement actions for improvement. Clearly, much work has been done since these assessments were administered in 2011. We have to do much more to achieve a world-class education system. This comprehensive and interesting report should help us considerably in mapping the way.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue I thank the Minister of State for his response. As he suggested, this report reminds us of the importance of participating in international studies, benchmarking where we are at with where other countries are at and trying to learn from other countries. I asked the Minister of State for some feedback on the finding that Ireland bucks the international trend with regard to rural schools. The report mentions that "nearly one-fifth of primary schools in Ireland [have] fewer than 50 pupils". The educational outcomes from such schools are quite strong, which is in contrast with the international experience. That useful finding needs to be taken strongly into account when the upcoming value for money review of smaller schools is published. I would like the Minister of State to give us an update on that review in his response.

There are things we need to continue to address. The Minister of State mentioned the importance of feedback from schools to parents as we try to ensure parents are as involved as possible in their children's education. Too often, our schools use parents primarily for fund-raising purposes, as opposed to considering them as a key part of the education system and the experience of schools. If we are to maintain the positive aspects of the report, we need to ensure we protect educational funding. The lesson we should take from this report is that the upcoming budget should not affect the pupil-teacher ratio in any way. I ask the Minister of State to give the House an assurance in that regard. It is crucial for us to ensure schools continue to focus on the development of the education product. We need to support them in that regard. I am concerned that as a result of some of the policies we have seen in recent budgets, schools are having to focus more of their energies on how they are run. As we are not supporting them sufficiently, fund-raising has become a key concern. Approximately half of the schools in this country were in the red last year. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I ask him to address the points I have made.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciarán Cannon Zoom on Ciarán Cannon As the Deputy has pointed out, this is a valuable and thought-provoking report. I noted with interest his specific reference to the educational outcomes of smaller rural schools. I think the information in the report in this respect will feed into our overall assessment of how we deliver education, not only in smaller rural schools but indeed across the whole school population. The Deputy and I share the aspiration of ensuring outcomes of the very highest quality are achieved in all school settings, regardless of whether a child attends a rural school with ten pupils or a school of 700 or 800 pupils in a large urban centre. I understand that the value for money report on small rural schools, to which the Deputy specifically referred, will be presented to the Cabinet quite shortly.

As I said at the start of this debate, it is important to note that Irish students scored remarkably well in the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments. We should be proud of that. I want to pay tribute to teachers, schools and, in particular, parents for this achievement. It is also heartening to read of the many strengths in Irish schools that are identified in the report. On a personal level, one of the things I took most heart from was the positive experience that children glean from attending our schools. They feel comfortable in our schools. It is a credit to our teachers, in particular, that such a safe, protected and caring environment is provided to students on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I accept that this report provides enormously important detail about aspects of the system that can be improved. There is no doubt about that.

It is good to recognise that since this research took place in 2011, many of the issues that were identified have been addressed and plans are in place to tackle others. The effects of initiatives such as improvements in teacher education and curriculum reform will take some time to manifest themselves. Other initiatives are already in place, for example, we are already providing better information to parents through better school reports. It is possible that this Government has taken the issue of standards in the school system more seriously than any of its predecessors. The improvement of outcomes for learners has been and will continue to be a central plank of our actions. My Government colleagues and the officials in the Department of Education and Skills intend to glean much useful information and many insights from an indepth examination of the report. That will help us to monitor our current initiatives and inform and develop future policy.

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