Irish students are top maths performers in EU, international study finds

Concern over under-performance of top students compared to peers in other countries

Students across the island of Ireland are the top performers in maths across the European Union at both primary and second level, according to a major international study.

The performance of students in Ireland at science is also significantly above the average.

However, high-achieving students in Ireland are under-performing compared to pupils in other highly ranked countries.

The findings are contained in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), based on data gathered in 2019 across more than 600,000 students in 64 countries.


The study, carried out every four years, measures the performance of children at fourth class in primary and second year in secondary level.

It shows there was little significant change recorded among Irish students since 2015 with pupils continuing to perform at a relatively high level.

No significant gender differences were found either, with boys and girls performing equally well in maths and science tests.

East Asia

Globally, however, Ireland lags significantly behind several east Asian countries and jurisdictions such as Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Japan.

In fourth class, for example, students in Ireland ranked in ninth place for maths and 18th place for science. Northern Ireland students ranked seventh.

In second year, students in Ireland ranked in seventh place for maths and 10th for science.

Encouragingly, the results show lower-achieving students in Ireland performed significantly better than the average of students in all countries surveyed.

However, there is a wide gap between the highest performing students in Ireland and their peers in countries with a similar overall performance.

These overall performance patterns for students in Ireland reflect the findings gathered in the previous survey in 2015.

This is despite junior cycle curriculum changes which were introduced over recent years.


Responding to the results, Minister for Education Norma Foley welcomed the fact that Ireland had maintained its strong performance.

“This high performance reflects the commitment and hard work of our school communities but also the significant efforts that have been put into the national literacy and numeracy strategy, curricular review and redevelopment, the Stem education policy statement and the digital strategy for schools,” she said.

Ms Foley said the absence of any significant gender differences for maths or science was very positive given her department’s focus on improvements in relation to gender balance in Stem.

The fact that lower-achieving students performed significantly better than the average of students in all countries showed equity in terms of schools’ performance generally.

However, she acknowledged there is a need for improvement among high performing students.

“The results show areas that we need to focus on. For example, we need to stretch the performance of higher-achieving students. Concentrated efforts are required to improve the performance of higher achieving students in both subjects at both school levels,” she said.

Ms Foley said there was a commitment in the programme for government to implement a strategy to support gifted and talented students at both primary and post-primary levels.

She said high-quality training is needed for teachers which incorporates a specific focus on extending higher-achieving’ students.

Junior cycle

On the issue of whether benefits should be apparent from new junior cycle reforms, she said we are “still in the early stage of implementation”.

“The new approaches and emphasis on transversal skills, critical thinking and inquiry-based learning will take time to impact on students’ performance,” she said.

“However, it is interesting to note the relative strengths of new areas of the curriculum as a trend across science and mathematics.”

Ms Foley added that the results from the study will be taken into account when considering actions in the next Stem education implementation plan.

Results of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (2019)

These are the top-line results from the 64 countries surveyed which show where Ireland ranked relative to other jurisdictions

Fourth class performance in maths

(1) Singapore

(2) Hong Kong

(3) Republic of Korea

(4) Chinese Taipei

(5) Japan

(6) Russian Federation

(7) Northern Ireland

(8) England

(9) Ireland

(10) Latvia

Fourth class performance in science

(1) Singapore

(2) Republic of Korea

(3) Russian Federation

(4) Japan

(5) Chinese Taipei

(6) Finland

(7) Latvia

(8) Norway

(9)United States

(10) Lithuania

(11) Sweden

(12) England

(13) Czech Republic

(14) Australia

(15) Hong Kong

(16) Poland

(17) Hungary

(18) Ireland

Second year performance in maths

(1) Singapore

(2) Chinese Taipei

(3) Republic of Korea

(4) Japan

(5) Hong Kong

(6) Russian Federation

(7) Ireland

(8) Lithuania

Second year performance in science

(1) Singapore

(2) Chinese Taipei

(3) Japan

(4) Republic of Korea

(5) Russian Federation

(6) Finland

(7) Lithuania

(8) Hungary

(9) Australia

(10) Ireland

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent