OPINION: New maths record set because students are looking to their futures
Barry O'Sullivan, Cisco senior vice-president and star of RTÉ's Dragons' Den

OPINION: New maths record set because students are looking to their futures

14 Aug 2013

Cisco senior vice-president and star of RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den Barry O’Sullivan has welcomed the new record set in the number of students who sat the Higher Level maths paper in the 2013 Leaving Certificate exams in Ireland. More than one in four maths candidates (26pc) took the Higher Level paper this year.

Firstly, credit where it is due. We’re quick in Ireland to point fingers when things go wrong, so let me acknowledge the stunning success of the introduction of bonus CAO points for Higher Level Maths in 2012. By any measure, all objectives were exceeded with 13,014 students sitting Higher Level maths this year. This represents an increase of more than 58pc from 2011, reversing years of decline. A massive 97pc of students achieved grade D or higher, entitling them to 25 bonus points. For this spectacular achievement, Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn, TD; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation Sean Sherlock, TD; and the entire Department of Education are to be congratulated. The simple equation for Ireland is that “Maths = Jobs”. As an example, Cisco’s decision to add 100 R&D jobs in Galway last year was influenced by this Government’s commitment to improving attainment in maths and science.

There has been the suggestion that the introduction of bonus points has been the primary reason that points requirements for science and engineering have increased significantly over the last number of years. In support of this is the example of science at University College Dublin (UCD), where points have “climbed from a low of 305 a few years ago to 500 in 2012”. A quick look behind these statistics, however, tells a different story. Most of this increase happened before the introduction of bonus points in 2012. The points requirement in 2011 was 455, and it would seem that at least some of the increase last year was simply a continuation of the trend. Clearly, for engineering courses, there was zero impact, as higher-level maths has long been a prerequisite.

Future Human

The primary reason for higher points in these courses is higher demand as more students look to the careers of the future. Under the headline Rise in points in UCD follows economic trend in 2011, UCD deputy president, Prof Mark Rogers, said, “Demand for science, engineering and agriculture programmes reflect the career focus of many students”. With 5,000 unfilled jobs in the technology sector in Ireland, students are making the smart choice.

Making the smarter choice

Why are more students choosing Higher Level maths? There is one reason only, in my opinion – bonus points. I have heard it suggested that the new Project Maths curriculum is a contributing factor but I can see no link there. In fact, far from being an incentive to students to choose Higher Level, the multi-layered, multi-year transition to the new curriculum is causing confusion and doubt. My experience with Leaving Certificate students in my house this year and last year is that there is huge difficulty in even understanding what is on the course in any given year. Which strands are in and which are out ? The textbooks, past exam papers and workbooks are a confusing compendium of mixed content. Once the transition is complete the confusion will dissipate, but this year’s students are caught between two stools. (The fact that calculus and vectors will effectively be removed from the curriculum defies logic but that is another discussion).

To all the students who have worked so hard to get to this week – the best of luck in getting the college course you want. To those of you who sat Higher Level maths – congratulations on taking on the challenge – your reward may be far greater than the 25 bonus points, because success in maths can open up a world of opportunity.

Barry O’Sullivan

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