A Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study has shown that one in six Irish students has significant reading problems while 23 percent of Irish males have lower than “functional literacy." This means that they can not communicate in society.

The survey shows that Ireland’s level of literacy has dropped more significantly than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country.

Responding to the survey Minister for Education Mary Coughlan told Parliament that a lack of reading material and televisions in bedrooms were contributing to the low levels of literacy among children.

She said, “It was not money … It was the priority: books or television?” She added that she was working towards improved teacher qualifications and a curriculum change in literacy and numeracy.

Fergus O’Dowd, Fine Gael spokesperson on Education, said the survey showed how appalling the education during the Celtic Tiger era was. He called on a shake-up in the administrative system within the Department of Education and a crusade for literacy. He said teachers need to be empowered to get the best results from all children.

He said “You are failing those who are most vulnerable … How, in the name of God, can they get jobs and compete with those who came top of PISA’s scores?”

Deirdre Clune, of Fine Gael, said that she was stuck by the observations in the report which said “we cannot assume that all Irish primary teachers are proficient in the teaching of literacy and numeracy."

Looking at Ireland’s results in science, Ms Coughlan said Ireland’s ranking between 2006 and 2009 had risen. However, Ireland fell from fifth to 17th in the reading stakes from 2000 to 2009. and from 20th to 26th in math between 2003 and 2009.

Ms Coughlan said, “While I welcome the results Irish students achieved in the PISA tests for science, I am disappointed with the results in reading and maths … The extent of the falls in the reading scores of Irish students are surprising, as Irish students scored well above average in reading in all previous rounds of PISA.’’

She observed that national assessments of math and English read showed stable literacy and numeracy levels in Irish primary schools. She said that standards remained constant in the State examinations also.

The Department of Education has had experts from Statistics Canada and an educational research center study the results.

“Both teams of experts have concluded that some, but not all, of the lower scores in reading and maths are explained by changes in the demographics of the group of 15-year-olds taking the test,” she said.

“Greater numbers of students whose first language is not Irish or English are now in classrooms, as are greater numbers of students with special educational needs.”