The most influential figure in Irish education doesn’t hold elected office in Ireland, doesn’t teach in an Irish classroom and has never lived here.

Government ministers for education consistently beat a path to the door of this German mathematician and statistician, seeking advice on how to boost the performance of their schools.

The Atlantic magazine calls him “the world’s schoolmaster” while former British minister for education Michael Gove has described him as “the father of more revolutions than any German since Karl Marx”.

He is Andreas Schleicher (59), a thoughtful, silver-haired German mathematician and researcher and – hold your breath for the unwieldy job title – director for education and skills and special adviser on education policy to the secretary general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

One of the reasons he’s such a big deal is that he pioneered a global test in 2000, carried out every three years among hundreds of thousands of 15 year olds, which tells us which countries perform best in reading, maths and science.

They are known as the Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) and Schleicher is, if you like, the Pisa delivery man.

Normally it’s students who wait nervously for exam results. But every three years, it’s the turn of the minister for education to open the envelope and see how Irish pupils performed.

‘If as a teacher your only business is knowledge transmission, AI will make you irrelevant’

Poor Pisa results have in the past led to calls for resignations and knee-jerk reforms. Much to the relief of current Minister for Education Norma Foley, there was good news for Ireland when the results were released last December: 15 year olds in Ireland scored second-highest in the world for reading (up from eighth in 2018) and above average for maths (11th, up from 21st) and science (12th, up from 22nd). In reading only Singapore ranked higher than Ireland, followed by Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Estonia.

Yet, Schleicher isn’t glowing about the Irish education system.

While he says our academic scores are a “real strength”, he warns that our system is “highly industrial” where everyone learns at the same pace, using the same kind of methods and a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

There is little, he says, in the way of meaningful choice between academic or vocational tracks because “from the beginning, only one of these is valued”.

We also have relatively few high-achieving students compared to many of our competitor countries. This, he says, is the result of “a very industrial model that speaks to the average student and educates the average student”.

Another badge of pride here is the volume of students we send to third level, which is among the highest in the world.

Again, Schleicher isn’t necessarily impressed.

Universities, he says, are under bigger pressure from new technology. The kind of things they teach and test, he says, are the ones which are easiest to digitise and automate.

“The metrics that many universities use for success reward conformity and compliance with established ways of thinking,” he says.

In Germany, by contrast, students are being paid to go to university because they are getting more relevant and interesting vocational learning experiences working with the likes of BMW or Siemens.

In Ireland, however, vocational options are often seen as “as last resort rather than a first choice” because our school system measures students who go down the academic route on their strengths and those who go down the vocational track on their weakness.

Ironically, he says, many in the vocational sector are often better-prepared for the future.

“They have learned to work with real people, they have learned to work on real problems, they have learned to live with the consequences of real mistakes,” he says.

But his biggest concern about Irish education is that it performs below average when it measures students’ emotional resilience and psychological wellbeing. They also feel less of a sense of belonging to school than they used to.

This, he says, raises questions about the quality of students’ social relationships and capacity to reinvent themselves when things get difficult.

“I don’t think this is just the pandemic – this has actually been a structural feature of Irish education… in the world of today, can you live with yourself? That is what emotional resilience is about. Can you live with people who are different from you? That’s about the quality of social relationships.

“Ireland is atypical in that you have a large discrepancy between a very strong cognitive set of outcomes and actually a low level of emotional resilience, a low level of the quality of social relationships and low level of psychological wellbeing…In Finland or Denmark, it is more evenly balanced. Ireland is more like South Korea.”

A downward slope in children’s emotional resilience closely tracks the growth in smartphones and access to social media over the past decade and a half.

Schleicher says technology may well have much to do with these negative trends, by isolating students and weakening their social ties.

Yet, he says, countries such as Denmark have been able to reconcile academic strength and protecting students’ emotional wellbeing.

Why? One factor, he says, is making school more relevant and ensuring there is time and space to forge positive relationships with students and teachers.

“If students see that what they learn makes sense, makes a difference for them, makes a difference to their lives, then education can stand up to other influences. If school becomes a kind of a boring experience where they learn for an exam, then you turn to social media and it isolates you from the rest of the world,” he says.

The question of whether to ban phones in schools, he says, is “probably a question of age”, but he says teenagers need to be empowered to navigate the “wild west” of social media, understand how algorithms amplify different views and distinguish fact from opinion.

“Suddenly, then, it becomes a source of strength,” he says.

He is also a passionate believer in changing how we assess students. The Leaving Cert, like many other national end-of-school exams, is deeply flawed, he says.

‘The metrics that many universities use for success reward conformity and compliance with established ways of thinking’

“We teach you for 12 years, pile up a lot of content, and then one day, we will call you back and ask you to tell us everything that you’ve ever learned in your whole life in a very contrived, artificial setting. We call that an exam – and that has produced the shallowness of teaching and learning,” he says.

Scheicher is in favour of assessments which demonstrate how learners can apply knowledge in more dynamic ways.

“The biggest crime you can commit in the Leaving Certificate is to open up your smartphone and Google the answers. They would throw you out,” he says.

“But I believe that we should teach people conceptual understanding, teach them to apply knowledge. And actually, suddenly, you will see that people in vocational tracks may do a lot better than people in academic tracks. They have learned to work with real people, they have learned to work on real problems, they have to learn to live with the consequences of real mistakes. And that’s really what matters.”

The old style of learning through apprenticeships – learning from and with real people and making mistakes in real time – worked well, he says. The future may involve returning to this traditional approach with the aid of cutting-edge technology.

“Why do young people love computer games? Not because of the learning only, but because of the assessment. It’s actually giving them that feedback,” he says.

Schleicher’s passion for improving how students teach and learn is influenced by his own experiences. His father was a professor of education and his mother a doctor. Yet, Schleicher struggled in school. But he showed promise in his final year when, after changing schools, he won a national science award.

The difference, he says, was that he felt engaged by some teachers. Following a physics degree and master’s in maths, he later moved into education research. At the OECD, he says he persuaded the organisation to collect more rigorous data on the outputs of schools. It led to the development of Pisa tests. The system, while influential, has its fair share of critics who say it leads to short-term fixes designed to help countries climb in the rankings and emphasises a narrow range of aspects of education.

As for the future, Schleicher is hopeful. Technology has the potential to better engage students, liberate teachers from marking “boring” homework and push educators to design assessments that test how students think.

This isn’t the end of teachers, he says, but it is the end of a style of teaching.

“If as a teacher your only business is knowledge transmission, AI will make you irrelevant. But if your role is to be an inspirator, coach, social worker, designer, this is going to be the most interesting job you ever had… AI is not going to replace teachers, but teachers who are good at using AI will replace teachers who don’t get that message.”