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PIAAC 2012


Survey Results for Ireland:


From the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies





The CSO today published the results of a major new international survey of adult skills known as PIAAC. The survey assessed the skills of adults in Ireland aged between 16 and 65 in the areas of literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

The survey was run in 24 countries under the direction and supervision of the OECD and a consortium of international institutions. PIAAC was conducted in Ireland over eight months between August 2011 and March 2012 by the CSO on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. Almost 6,000 adults took part in the survey and Ireland had a 72% response rate, the third highest of the participating countries.

The OECD has also today published a comprehensive international report outlining the findings of PIAAC across all participating countries (


Understanding the results


A ‘mean score’ is a single figure used to summarise the proficiency of adults in each of the three skill areas (i.e. literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments). Scores range from 1 to 500.

Literacy, numeracy and problem solving scores are also grouped into different levels of proficiency for each skill area or domain. Literacy and numeracy proficiency have been split into five levels and problem solving in technology-rich environments has been split into three, where the levels represent an increasing proficiency to successfully complete tasks within the domain.


Main findings




  • Adults in Ireland have an average (adjusted mean1) score on the literacy scale of 266, slightly below the study average of 270.
  • This mean score places Ireland 17th out of 24 participating countries, and in a group with Germany, Poland, Austria, Flanders (Belgium) and Northern Ireland, whose literacy scores are not statistically different from that of Ireland.
  • Across the levels of the literacy scale, 18% of Ireland’s respondents are found at or below Level 1, compared to 17% on average across participating countries.
  • The proportion of adults found at this level in Ireland is statistically the same as the study average and the percentage of eight other countries, including Canada (17%), England (18%), Poland (19%), Germany (19%) and Northern Ireland (20%).

         1 See technical note below on adjusted mean scores.


Reading components


An important new element of PIAAC is its use of three basic reading tests to examine the reading ability of those with the weakest literacy skills.

  • Adults in Ireland whose literacy proficiency was assessed as being below Level 1 answered, on average, 95% of the word meaning, 84% of the sentence processing and 91% of the passage comprehension tasks correctly.
  • This compares to adults at Level 4 and 5 who answered 99%, 97% and 99% of the items correctly for each of the three basic reading tests.
  • This suggests that many adults at the lower end of the literacy spectrum, as measured by PIAAC, have basic literacy skills.


Literacy trends over time


PIAAC results are compared with the results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) that was conducted in Ireland in 1994.The IALS survey data has been rescaled to make it comparable with PIAAC.

In assessing the literacy trend in Ireland over time, it is important to take account of the dramatic population growth in the intervening period. There has been an increase of 700,000 in the population aged 16-65, from 2.31m to 2.99m. At the same time the percentage of non-Irish residents in the population has more than doubled and a higher percentage of these do not speak English as a native language (15% versus 50% now). Finally almost a quarter of the population aged 16-65 reported that their highest level of education was at primary level in 1996, but this had dropped to 10% in 2011 (Census 1996 and 2011).

  • There is no statistical difference between the average literacy scores of adults in 1994 and 2012 in Ireland (IALS score of 264 as against 267 for PIAAC). Internationally, some countries have experienced a drop in their literacy mean score, such as Denmark (-18 points), while some had an increase, most notably Poland (+35). 
  • In 1994 22%2 of adults were assessed as being at Level 1 (or below) in Ireland and this figure has now dropped to 18%. Of the fifteen countries who participated in both IALS and PIAAC, five have seen a drop in the percentage of adults at or below Level 1 on literacy (including Ireland), while nine countries have seen an increase.

        2 The original figure was 25% at this level but the IALS data was rescaled by the OECD in 2012 resulting in a revised figure of 22% in Ireland.




  • Adults aged 16–65 have an average (adjusted mean) score of 255 on the numeracy scale in Ireland, significantly below the PIAAC study average score of 266. 
  • This mean score places Ireland 19th  out of 24 participating countries and in a group with Northern Ireland (255) and France (253).
  • About one quarter (26%) of adults in Ireland score at or below Level 1 on the numeracy scale compared to just 20% on average across participating countries.
  • This percentage is not statistically different from Poland (24%), England (26%) and Northern Ireland (27%), but is lower than the percentage at this level in France (29%), Spain (31%), Italy (32%) and the United States (33%).


Problem solving in technology-rich environments


Problem solving in technology-rich environments proficiency was also tested in PIAAC. This assessed the respondent’s ability to use a number of common computer applications (e.g. email, spread sheets, word processing, internet browser) to complete various tasks.

The distribution of adults across the different levels of the problem solving scale is reduced by the proportion of adults who said they had no computer experience (10% in Ireland as against an 8% study average), failed the basic computer skills assessment (5% in both Ireland and internationally) and the proportion of adults (17% in Ireland versus the study average of 10%) who opted not to take a computer-based assessment even though they had previously used a computer.

  • More than two-fifths (42%) of adults in Ireland score at or below Level 1 (29.5% at Level 1, 12.6% below Level 1) on the problem solving scale, the same as the study average (42%). Ireland is in a large group of six other countries with a similar proportion at this level, including Finland (40%), Estonia (43%) and Sweden (44%).
  • At the top end of problem solving proficiency 25% of Ireland's adults are at Levels 2 and 3 compared to 34% on average internationally. This is significantly more than Poland (19%) but not statistically different from Northern Ireland (29%), Estonia (28%) or the Slovak Republic (26%).


Technical note – adjusted mean scores


Across all countries a small percentage of respondents were not able to participate in the survey for literacy-related reasons (e.g. language difficulties, disability and literacy problems). This was 0.5% in Ireland and 1.2% on average internationally. The OECD devised a methodology to take account of this by assigning this group a low mean score (85) for literacy and numeracy. This has the effect of slightly reducing the literacy and numeracy mean scores of some countries and increasing the percentage at or below Level 1 for literacy and numeracy, when these respondents are included. The scores for Ireland are largely unaffected by this procedure (for example the unadjusted mean for literacy fell from 267 to 266 for Ireland and the percentage at or below Level 1 rose from 17.5% to 17.9%) but the relative position of countries internationally is slightly changed.


Editor's note


The full PIAAC 2012 report is available on the CSO web site:

PIAAC 2012 Survey Results for Ireland


The OECD international report is available here:


For further information contact


Donal Kelly at 021 453 5424 or

Mary Malone at 021 453 5374


Central Statistics Office

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Central Statistics Office                                                            8 October 2013


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