Irish-based employers say maths skills don’t add up

15 Dec 2008

Improving maths skills is critically important to the Irish economy, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) warned today as it issued proposals to put Ireland at the top of the OECD for maths proficiency.

Anne Heraty, chairperson of the EGFSN, said employers have indicated that the current level of Ireland’s mathematical achievement is a serious concern.

“Boosting our maths skill levels is essential to realising opportunities for employment,” Heraty said. “Maths is a fundamental requirement for Ireland’s development as a modern economy – important both for service and manufacturing jobs, and for sectors of the economy with growth potential, such as ICT, life sciences, business and finance, and professional services.

The EGFSN has proposed the provision of professional development and recognition to maths teachers at primary and secondary level. It said adequate time should be allocated to the development of maths competence on teacher-training courses.

Primary- and secondary-level maths teachers should be provided with additional professional development. Professional master’s degrees and higher diplomas in maths education should also be developed.

In addition, a part-time teacher degree aimed at those working in jobs with high maths content should also be considered. This may be particularly attractive to those seeking a career change and who are interested in maths teaching.

The EGFSN has also called for the development of a more interactive, imaginative approach to teaching mathematics. A more interactive teaching approach would help students understand maths concepts and see their relevance and application in the world around them. This approach should start at primary level and be continued and reinforced at second level.

Also, students who struggle with maths should be given greater help at primary level to reduce the large numbers failing the subject at Leaving Cert. The EGFSN has called for a more structured maths studies programme for Transition Year students to ensure continued development in maths competency between the Junior and Leaving-Cert cycles.

A novel proposal contained in the report is the provision of maths-based material aimed at enhancing the parent’s role in supporting their child’s maths learning. Schools could also provide parents with short instruction sessions on maths concepts and learning.

At Leaving-Cert level, the EGFSN has called for the incentivisation of students to take higher-level maths in the Leaving Cert, including bonus college points and taking ordinary level in their fifth year, with the choice of taking higher level later in the sixth year.

The group also called for the creation of workplace initiatives for the learning of mathematics and numeracy in line with programmes already available for literacy.

Finally, it proposed regular benchmarking and evaluation of Irish maths performance in an international context.

“We must build and complement the significant developments underway with Project Maths. The proposals made by the EGFSN should be seen as part of a broad set of measures that need be implemented in a co-ordinated way to improve national maths achievement. This will require the support of a wide range of partners,” Heraty concluded.

ICT Ireland, which represents the multinational technology industry in Ireland, has welcomed the EGFSN proposals. “For the past number of years, the high failure rate in maths and the small numbers choosing to take higher level has made the headlines,” explained ICT Ireland director, Kathryn Raleigh. “It is time to stop posturing and tackle the problem head on.

“The key stakeholders should immediately embrace and support the recommendations of today’s report. In particular, there is a need for more professional development of teachers at both primary and secondary level, and for greater incentives for students to take higher-level maths.

“A strong grounding in maths is an essential life skill, and is particularly important if we want to support and grow our knowledge economy. Our knowledge, and our ability to apply it, is now the most important asset in the Irish economy. A high proficiency in maths is vital for students’ future success in whatever course of life they choose.

“Maths opens doors to many exciting opportunities, particularly in the technology sector, which has bucked the trend in recent months by announcing a number of significant job announcements,” Raleigh said.

By John Kennedy

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