Outrage at falling maths and science performance in Leaving Cert

12 Aug 2009

Industry groups have expressed outrage at declining maths and science performance evident in this year’s Leaving Cert results, warning that the country needs to maintain and improve the quality of its human capital for economic survival.

Leaving Certificate results showed that just 16pc of students took honours maths which is down on the 2008 figures.

Of these, 6.7pc got the top grade possible. Only 10pc took higher level chemistry while just 8pc took higher level physics.

“Regardless of their satisfaction with today’s results, all students should see the Leaving Cert not as the finishing line, but as a gateway to lifelong learning. Ireland’s economy is changing rapidly and, in order to keep pace, re-skilling and up-skilling has become increasingly important,” Ian Talbot, chief executive, Chambers Ireland said.

“We urge every student that receives their results today to consider all of the options they have before them, including many not contained in the CAO points system.

“There is an abundance of Institutes of Technology, Post Leaving Cert Colleges and other part-time colleges that offer a plethora of courses, many offering additional modules such as work placement programmes which may be of huge benefit by giving them direct experience in the workplace and developing their CVs, particularly during these challenging times.”

“However, we remain disappointed at the relatively high numbers of students failing maths, combined with a drop in numbers for those taking higher level maths. The Government, the Department of Education and Science and teaching staff must work collaboratively to introduce real and tangible incentives to encourage more students to take these and other science subjects at the highest level possible.

“As a knowledge-based economy we rely heavily on graduates with a deep knowledge of mathematical sciences,” Talbot said.

The training of maths and science teachers must be improved to boost the standard of teaching in these subjects, according to director general of Engineers Ireland, John Power.

Speaking in the wake of the Leaving Cert results that showed the ongoing low numbers studying these subjects, Power called for an immediate Government move on the issue.

“These latest Leaving Cert figures once again indicate that there is another decrease in the numbers studying honours maths and the grades obtained in the physical science subjects.

“These subjects are key elements of the engineering syllabus at third-level. Engineers Ireland has already highlighted the direct link between the decreasing numbers studying these subjects and the shortage of engineers entering Irish industry. There needs to be a total overhaul of how maths and science is taught in secondary school,” Power said.

He went on to point out that the current situation where many teachers are teaching maths and the physical sciences without a specific qualification or significant training in these areas is unacceptable.

“These so-called ‘hard’ subjects need to be taught in an applied manner that shows their relevance to the ever-day applications that underpin the engineering profession. There have been approximately 4,700 jobs announced across the Green economy in the last 4 months alone.

“But a ready supply of engineers is crucial to the future viability of this sector so how can we meet the objectives of the Green agenda if our graduates don’t have the requisite skills to fill these vacancies. By changing the way we train maths and physical science teachers, we will improve the standard of teaching in these areas, encouraging students to study these subjects and ultimately producing more engineers in the long-run to make the Green economy a feasible proposition. So I would say, for a career, be an engineer.”

According to a major report by DKM Economic Consultants earlier this year, engineers directly contribute €5.5 billion to the Irish economy and are particularly prominent in high-tech sectors that account for almost 80pc of merchandise exports.

ICT Ireland, the group that represents the Irish high-tech sector, expressed concern with the consistently low numbers choosing to sit the higher-level maths paper.

ICT Ireland Executive Aoife O’Brien said: “While there was a marginal decrease in the failure rate in maths this year, the ever-decreasing number of students choosing to take higher-level remains a huge concern. Of the students who sat the Leaving Certificate this year, only 16pc sitting the maths paper chose higher levels, compared to 17pc in 2008. While this is not a dramatic drop, it is clear that immediate action is required to encourage more students to take the course.

“Ensuring that school-leavers have a firm grasp of maths is vital if Ireland is to develop as a leading smart economy, which supports knowledge-driven jobs.

“If we do not address the low numbers taking higher level maths, we run the risk of reducing the attractiveness of Ireland as a location for R&D, particularly in the field of engineering and science.

“ICT Ireland welcomes the decision by the Department of Education and Science to introduce a revised course in maths – Project Maths. We would urge the Government to continue to support and resource this initiative, as we believe it will have a significant impact on the teaching of maths in the future,” O’Brien said.

ICT Ireland also renewed its call for bonus points to be awarded for higher level-maths, to increase the attractiveness of the course.

“The system needs to recognise and reward the time commitment required to study higher-level maths at senior cycle,” O’Brien concluded. “As a society, we have not lost our appetite for technological innovation, but we are simply not preparing enough of our young people for careers in this field.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years