Maths don’t add up for smart economy

13 Aug 2009

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Leaving Cert results show Ireland is failing at maths and science, skills that are vital for future jobs

Much has been written about Ireland’s competitiveness issues in terms of costs, especially around salaries and electricity.

But where the writing is truly on the wall for this country is our ability to provide the workforce of the 21st century.

The recent news that less than 20pc of Leaving-Cert students sat honours maths is only the tip of the iceberg – we need to field IT literate graduates with the analytical, critical, logical thinking and people skills that will not only capture future investments but will also fuel start-ups.

Not only is the quality of maths teaching questionable in this country, but our motivation in terms of kitting out Irish schools with ICT equipment and skills is also in doubt. In more than 10 years of economic boom, no attempt has been made to put computers in schools – how is that possible? A €250m investment announced two years ago by former education minister Mary Hanafin TD never materialised and probably never will.

Yet, despite having the world’s leading ICT and pharmaceutical companies located here, and with over 100,000 people employed in well-paying ICT jobs, Ireland suffers from an undersupply of IT and science graduates and an oversupply of law and business students.

The 2009 figures from the Central Applications Office reveal the number of applicants for engineering and technology degree courses was down by 9.8pc on last year. In 2005, Dublin City University had 224 graduates from its computing course. By the following year, this number dropped by more than half to 92 and declined again to 78 in 2007.

This is despite Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft and Facebook announcing ICT jobs in the past six months and more than 40pc of all IDA investments involving cutting-edge R&D.

A recent study by Discover Science & Engineering, conducted by Ipsos MORI, into young people’s attitudes provides some of the reason.

Well-paying jobs with travel opportunities and scope for satisfactory careers in the ICT business tend to be overridden by negative connotations: that these careers are a destination for nerds and geeks.

Barry O’Sullivan, an Irishman who is a senior vice-president for Cisco in Silicon Valley and responsible for a 3,000-strong workforce and a business unit that generates €2bn in revenue a year, points to an obvious flaw – in Ireland we have made heroes out of property developers but not out of scientists and mathematicians.

This comes at a time when students in China and India dream of being PhD graduates and emulating the success of people like Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple. Their Irish counterparts probably dream of being on Pop Idol.

At secondary level, there appears to be a mental block when it comes to subjects such as maths and science.

"Maths and certain science subjects are seen by many as being particularly difficult and requiring a level of work that is not conducive to the objective of maximising CAO points," the Discover Science & Engineering report reads.

This is probably at the heart of the issue.

John Power, director-general of Engineers Ireland, says that it is unthinkable that Ireland could let children graduate from school without a fundamental grasp of maths.

"We have to realise that maths and science will be the areas that will keep the economy flowing. We need, therefore, to make the teaching of maths more interesting and relevant and ensure that those who are teaching maths are competent.

"Ireland is not unique, but now that the problem has become obvious we need to do something. The main blight is the fascination with CAO points – the system is allowing points to simply define the career path of a people. In terms of developing the economy, the problems of the last 30 years are not going to be the problems of the next 30 years. If we are sticking to the same inputs and outputs, then we are clearly taking the wrong medicine."

Power explains that the Project Maths initiative, which has started with 24 schools and is aimed at changing the maths curriculum, needs to be rolled out to all secondary schools by 2010.

"I would ask anybody in a position of power in this country that, when it comes to investing in education, why do they think they have the right to deprive those coming after us of the benefits of an education we were privileged to get?"

Peter Brabazon, director of Discover Science & Engineering, points out that maths literacy will be the key to life in the 21st century and fundamental for all careers, whether it’s manufacturing, finance or digital entertainment.
“In the 20th century, the lingua francas of business were English and Chinese. In the 21st century, the lingua franca of business will be mathematics."

"Every country in the OECD is struggling with maths literacy, Ireland is just about maintaining an average position. However, if we are going to have this smart economy we need to be better than average."

He says that without a doubt the Project Maths rollout to all secondary schools will be vital to the future economic life of Ireland.

"This is about a fundamental change of curriculum in a short period of time. It is due to roll out in September 2010 and will be vital to the future of this economy. Its investment would be a mere fraction of the billions we’ve thrown at NAMA.

"We need to make a break with rote learning and improve maths literacy and logical thinking. This means students will have a natural aptitude for maths.

"When I went to college, 50pc of what I learned would have been out of date within 10 years. Today it is less than two years. Maths and science should be subjects that students enjoy and respect, rather than dismissed as too hard in order to succeed in a points race."

Dr Danny O’Hare, former chair of both the Information Society Commission and the Task Force on Physical Sciences and current chair of the Exploration Station, a world-class €30m science facility earmarked for close to
"One of the great drivers of our economic success has been our education system. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that the way out of this recession is to have a robust education system.

"In the Seventies, people in this country regretted we did not have the coal and steel industries that drove other countries. We accepted we just didn’t have the raw materials. But, in the 21st-century, economies will thrive on achievements in science and technology. The raw material is brainpower," O’Hare concludes.

Have your say over on Digital21.ie

Picture above: (Clockwise, from left) John Power, director-general, Engineers Ireland; Dr Danny O’Hare, chair of Information Society Commission and the Task Force on Physical Sciences; and Peter Brabazon, director, Discover Science & Engineering

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com