Irish society needs all the youthful intelligence and imagination it can get. So it is not surprising that new figures showing Ireland’s decline in international rankings from fifth to 17th in reading and from 16th to 26th in maths have raised serious concerns.

Our drop in the rankings is the consequence of our own declining standards rather than a surge in other countries’ skills. The average score in reading for Irish 15-year-olds dropped 31 points since 2000, the largest fall in the OECD by some distance. Average scores in maths fell by 16 points. The decline has been across the board.

Many have already reached for the easy explanation of our decline – the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants to Ireland. However, even if we look only at native-born children, Ireland still ranks 17th in reading, the area where most information is available. This decline cannot be pinned on immigrants.

The trends in the report defy easy answers but there are clues in even a preliminary look at the results. Class inequality still takes a toll on educational performance. This is both unjust and a profoundly wasteful under-investment in the country’s population and capabilities.

While such inequalities have remained relatively stable, differences between schools have become more important in predicting student performance. There is significant evidence of the particularly difficult situation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend disadvantaged schools. Such students perform significantly worse than students from similar backgrounds who go to schools with a more socially mixed student body.

Similarly, students from immigrant backgrounds do have significantly lower reading scores – but this disadvantage is almost entirely for students from homes where English is not the everyday language. Such students score an average of 444 in reading, compared to 503 for students who speak English at home. Even though this is only a small part of Ireland’s overall pattern of decline, this is a group that is clearly vulnerable to further marginalisation in a time of severe unemployment.

Maintaining and extending socially mixed schools and supporting learning in the most disadvantaged schools will be crucial. Ireland has less concentration of immigrant children in specific schools than most OECD countries. Serious support for preschool education would be a wise investment as children who attended a pre-primary school tended to score higher in their reading.

What about within schools themselves? Across the OECD more students are saying that most of their teachers really listen to what they have to say, that if they need extra help from their teachers they will get it, and that most of their teachers treat them fairly. Ireland is one of the countries seeing such increases: 5.5 per cent, 4.3 per cent and 3.1 per cent respectively since 2000. In addition, Ireland is one of the leaders in the OECD in improving the disciplinary climate in schools. Some 11.2 per cent fewer students say students don’t listen to the teacher; 9.1 per cent fewer say there is noise and disorder, and 2.5 per cent fewer say students can’t work well. Teachers and students are connecting better than they did a decade ago. Nonetheless, reading and maths scores have still declined. Some of the most worrying trends in the report are outside schools. The percentage of students saying they read for enjoyment fell from 66.6 per cent to 58.1 per cent between 2000 and 2009 – and the greatest declines in reading for enjoyment were among girls from poorer backgrounds.

It will be important to take a closer look at these data to find out more about the sources of our declining standards in reading and maths. We need to recognise and face the problem squarely – the rise in immigrant children lets us off the hook but is only a tiny part of the story. It would be more useful to support immigrants’ education, especially where English is not the language at home, than to focus on them as the sources of our difficulties.

We have resources that we can build upon. For example, we can protect and extend the socially inclusive elements of our systems of schooling. A strong public system that promotes social mixing by class and immigrant background is crucial – and we have the building blocks in place. In the interim, we need to tackle pockets of disadvantage while working to integrate them into the broader educational system. We have good relations between teachers and students, built on fairness and responsiveness in the classroom. But we need to pay closer attention to a renewal of cultural and civic life beyond the school as these provide resources for students’ learning that are both crucial and under threat.

Most importantly, we need to move our debates about education to a more fruitful ground. These reports suggest that we should focus on supporting children’s home lives and access to cultural resources, extending community and public educational institutions, tackling inequalities, and learning from the progress being made in schools already. There are larger questions as to the purpose of our educational system in a changing culture and economy. But we will never address these if we get lost in a debate that is led astray through fatalism, sloganeering, or red herrings such as the effect of immigrant children on our international rankings.

Sean O’Riain (reprinted from yesterday’s Irish Times).

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