‘Schools will take lessons from Ireland success’, says Times

Janet Downs's picture

Why did Ireland do so well in global reading test? SoS asks

Education Secretary Damian Hinds visited Dublin last week  to meet his Irish equivalent Richard Bruton.

According to The Times*, one item discussed was the reason for Ireland’s high performance in the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) test.  Ireland’s ten-year-olds were fourth.  England was tenth.

Ireland’s success is widely attributed to Literacy and Numeracy Learning for Life 2011-2020.      Literacy**, the strategy says, is ‘the capacity to read, understand and critically appreciate various forms of communication including spoken language, printed text, broadcast media, and digital media.’  It's not reduced to decoding words out of context as in England's mandatory Phonics Screening test.

Irish teachers need to know ‘various strategies’ in teaching reading

The Irish strategy recognises the importance of ‘teaching the basic building blocks of reading’ including, but not confined to, phonics.  Irish teachers are expected to familiarise themselves with ‘various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions’ in teaching literacy and use these when appropriate.

There’s no emphasis on one teaching method as in England where schools minister Nick Gibb promotes synthetic phonics and claims in caused the rise in England’s PIRLS performance.  

Irish teachers are urged ‘to align their classroom practice with curricula rather than with textbooks or reading schemes only’ unlike in England where the DfE promoted a Government-approved list of reading schemes via its matched funding,

Formal teaching discouraged until after age six

High-quality continued professional development, engaging with parents, avoiding ‘premature formality’ before age six, prioritising ‘child-centred’ education in the early years and increasing the amount of time spent on literacy teaching in primary schools are all included in the strategy.

In England, pupils are expected to receive formal teaching of reading in Reception where some children are only four.  And Ofsted, undermining teacher professionalism, recommends the sole use of systematic, synthetic phonics in the early years.  

Standardised tests important but not for league tables

Standardised tests play an important part in self-evaluation, says Ireland’s strategy.  Aggregated assessment information could be used ‘to form a national picture of how well second-year students [aged 7-8/8-9] are acquiring literacy….’  Such test data should NOT, however, be used to produce school league tables.

Important that schools and public libraries collaborate

An interim report published in 2017 reviewed the strategy’s success.  It said targets in Level 3 reading set in 2011 had been exceeded by 2014 and increased for 2020.  One interesting point was the emphasis on collaboration between schools and public libraries.    Ireland wants to increase the proportion of 11-12 year-olds borrowing books from public libraries at least once a month from 47% (2014) to 60% by 2020.  

In England, public libraries are closing.  It's a national scandal.

DfE should study approaches to literacy in Ireland and Northern Ireland

The education secretary and Nick Gibb should study the Irish strategy.   They should also look at the way PIRLS star Northern Ireland teaches literacy.  Both countries stress the importance of teacher professionalism in deciding the most appropriate methodology.  Here in England it appears the minister knows best.  


*8 September 2018, behind paywall

**This article will focus on pre-school and primary literacy not numeracy or secondary literacy 

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 12/09/2018 - 14:21

The success of Ireland in PIRLS should not come as a surprise. In my IQ adjusted analysis of the 2015 PISA round, Ireland's education system came out top, just behind that of Poland.


Janet rightly points to differences in the approaches to reading and literacy between Ireland and England. The most important one is that whereas the Irish education system is driven by evidence, that in England is driven by ideology and is imposed by people who have never studied education at a deep level and have never stood in front of a classroom full of school children.

As well as having no competition between schools, no league tables, no early age cramming and co-operation between schools and public libraries (we are closing ours), Ireland has no grammar schools, no Academies and no Free Schools. The DfE are right to be looking for inspiration a short distance across the Irish sea, rather than from the neo-cons wrecking the US education system thousands of miles away across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Global Education Reform (GERM), knowledge based curriculum countries , US and UK came out at 53rd and 49th. Since I published my analysis in December 2016. My methodology has been endorsed by academics with international reputations. I circulated it widely in the UK, the US and in Europe and it has been widely read, but no refutation has been received. I am still waiting.

But will they they note of what they see, or will they reject it because it conflicts so seriously and obviously with their free market ideology?

G's picture
Wed, 12/09/2018 - 20:31

Nick Gibb is so confident of his own expertise in how children learn to read that anything else will be ignored. He can manage to get his head round phonics and so imposes his own simplistic solution.

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