Concern after error ‘denigrates’ NI students

TUV leader Jim Allister. Photo: Andrew Paton/
TUV leader Jim Allister. Photo: Andrew Paton/

Concerns have been raised after erroneous figures from an educational assessment body put Northern Ireland students near the bottom of literacy and numeracy league tables.

A report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last week ranked NI university students 22nd out of 23 countries in literacy and 21st out of 23 in numeracy.

However, the corrected figures show Northern Ireland as being mid-table rather than in the bottom three - ahead of the Republic of Ireland, Spain, England, the US for reading and writing skills, and Australia, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, England and the USA for in maths.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “The fact that the much publicised report by OECD, which denigrated NI students’ literacy and numeracy skills, turns out to have been catastrophically wrong, is highly significant.

“This raises serious questions as to OECD’s other educational reports upon which minister O’Dowd has been so keen to rely on and call in aid of his policy approach.”

Mr Allister added: “Now with OECD severely discredited, the department needs to urgently review its reliance on its various findings.”

An OECD spokesman said an “unfortunate” formatting error was to blame, but stressed the data in the Building Skills for All report is accurate.

Stephen Elliott of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education also said the mistake casts doubt on the reliability of the OECD.

“How do we know that we are not first or near to the top of international performance in education? If your instruments are broken, they’re broken,” he said.

Mr Elliott added: “The OECD have clearly got their homework wrong in terms of this publication. Governments seem to accept, without question, every report that the produce and minister [John] O’Dowd is one of those people who have given a great deal of reliance upon OECD/Pisa (Programme of International Student Assessment) information in terms of ranking, and yet the minister should have called on advice that was readily available to him inside out own Queen’s University Belfast, but he chose not to do that. There must be a reason, and I believe that reason is ideological.”

However, the OECD spokesman said there was a simple explanation for the error.

“The report is mainly about England but it does include some figures on Northern Ireland. It is the picture that shows these bars for different countries, but for some reason, 2.3 got at some point in the final preparation confused with 3.2...and because they have the same countries and the same bars it wasn’t immediately apparent. That is now corrected in the version that is online, but the underlying data are correct.”

The spokesman added: “This is an unfortunate error for which we take full responsibility. I think that’s something which we should have checked more thoroughly and unfortunately we didn’t. It’s not anything to do with Northern Ireland in particular.”