Thursday, December 09, 2010


The country of Ireland has a strong tradition of noted authors and the reputation of general mastery of language. So it it is all the more sad to learn that, according to columnist Sinead Ryan, Eire's standards of literacy has apparently plummeted too, joining what seems to be a widespread trend in the English-speaking world. She writes:

This week's Apprentice [TV programme] was a cringe-fest as resident eye candy Will McCreevey was fired by Bill Cullen who had enlisted eagle-eyed recruiter Mairead Fleming to check out his CV.

"Did you get help writing it, Will?" she asked sweetly. He hadn't, he said proudly. "Maybe you should have," she answered pointedly.

The former Bank of Scotland executive claimed "being a perfectionist" was one of his faults. Mairead agreed he had a few alright, but "clearly being a perfectionist isn't one of them", as she labelled his written application "atrocious" and "a shambles" citing basic spelling and grammar mistakes and an inability to articulate himself on paper.

Will was lucky. Others displaying such poor skills might not get so far. Indeed, Ireland has just been downgraded in the literacy stakes in a wide- ranging three-year study by leading thinktank, the OECD.

Ireland has slipped from 5th to 17th place in English and 15th to 25th for Maths. This isn't advanced calculus and interpretation of Ulysses we're talking about -- it's the basic skills of our 15-year-olds in the three Rs.

It is most pronounced as it comes at a time when our own assessment of the same pupils is glowing. Junior Cert honours grades have actually risen, with 79.4pc getting an A,B or C at Ordinary level this year compared to 71pc a decade ago, leading to inevitable suggestions that our exam system has been 'dumbed down'.


What can't be denied is that our kids are actually getting worse at expressing themselves in written form and undertaking basic mathematical problems. The OECD is not the first organisation to rap us on the knuckles. Tony Donoghue, head of education policy with IBEC -- who represent the employers seeing CVs every bit as bad as Will's every day -- said they had already raised concerns over literacy levels with the Government.

Google executive John Herlihy spoke earlier this year of the number of CVs and letters he routinely bins due to basic spelling and grammar errors -- and they're from graduates. Clearly parental influence has a huge role to play. It's not fair to simply lay the blame at teachers' doors when they are dealing with larger class sizes, an increase in pupils for whom English is not a first language and a fuller curriculum. Children who come from homes where parents are well-read do best in literacy tests. Those who are supported in their learning, likewise, but simple measures seem to have passed many by.

For instance, we have fantastic free libraries in Ireland. While well over half of the 15-year-olds in other countries borrow regularly for pleasure reading, just four in 10 here do.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a TV in their room, fewer books in the home and suffer the worst literacy problems according to studies here.

Getting it right early on is the key. It's too late when our engineering, computer and science graduates discover they can't write articulately only after they apply for that all-important job.

- Sinead Ryan,

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