Maths results don’t add up for ICT sector

13 Aug 2008

Ireland’s ICT sector risks being seriously undermined by continuing maths failure rates at second level and the industry has called on the Government to come up with a more creative way to boost the quality of maths teaching in the nation’s schools.

As students receive their Leaving Cert results today, it emerged last night that one-tenth of students failed maths.

Out of 8,510 candidates who sat the honours paper in the core subject, 4.5pc failed compared to 3.8pc last year, while the numbers failing the ordinary level paper rose to 12.3pc, up from 11.5pc last year. Of the 5,803 pupils who opted to sit the foundation level, 5.7pc failed.

“No one will say it out loud, but the lack of uptake in honours maths in Ireland is due to teacher performance,” said Shane Dempsey, director of the Irish Software Association, which represents the country’s indigenous technology sector.

“The teaching of maths is the single most important factor in a child’s education and the fact of the matter is the education system cannot surpass beyond the quality of its teachers.

“Talk of the maths failure rate being an international problem is a cop-out,” Dempsey continued. “We have the potential to improve the interest in maths, science and engineering but we’re not creative enough to take the right steps.”

He pointed out that important factors such as bonus points for honours maths students pursuing fields like engineering were abolished in recent years and this is starting to tell.

“This is a real economic issue for Ireland in terms of companies that rely on students coming out of engineering and computer courses. We are asleep when it comes to maths and we are just hitting the snooze button when maths points are brought up. We’re just not getting out of bed on the issue and this could be disastrous for the economy.”

Returning to the issue of teacher performance, Dempsey said: “Maths is the language of the knowledge economy. We have to address teacher performance. A whole series of steps are needed but it requires bravery at the Department of Education and Science.”

Dempsey pointed out that currently only two out of every 10 teachers teaching honours maths are actually qualified to do so. “Some of these people only have to do a module as part of one year at teacher training college to be qualified to teach honours maths. We have to acknowledge the fact that honours maths requires special treatment.”

Indicating the economic importance of fielding sufficient technical graduates, Dempsey said it is as much an issue for multinationals in Ireland as it is for local home-grown companies.

“All technology companies are finding it hard to get Irish talent. SMEs are finding it hard and they are competing against organisations like Google, Intel and IBM. If an organisation has 20 Polish IT engineers in a high-cost location like Dublin, surely someone in head office is going to be asking why don’t they have an office in a lower-cost location like Poland. This is potentially a very serious issue for the economy and no one seems brave enough to take the steps that need taking,” Dempsey warned.

The recent decision by Education Minister, Batt O’Keefe TD, to reintroduce third-level fees for the well-off was welcomed by Engineers Ireland, which warned that the money should be used to boost the quality of teaching of core subjects like maths, science and engineering.

“There is still resistance from young people to engineering and science training in schools and colleges and there continues to be an ongoing shying away from these so-called ‘hard’ subjects,” said Engineers Ireland director general, John Power.

“It is the Government’s responsibility to foster the country’s economic interests and a key element of this is an education system that equips students to face the modern world and solve the challenges of today and the future,” Power warned.

Minister for Education Batt O’Keefe TD, speaking on Eamon Keane’s Lunchtimeprogramme on Newstalk 106 FM, said in response to the maths failure rate in the Leaving Cert that he is about to launch an initiative aimed at developing students’ problem-solving skills.

“Maths has been a cause for concern for some time and obviously the 12pc failure rate is disappointing. The Government is aware reform is needed at second level as there is not adequate understanding of mathematical concepts.

“We aim to ensure this changes by introducing ‘Project Maths’ in 24 schools this September, which is a new concept to bring about a cultural change in the teaching of maths.”

This development will see much greater emphasis being placed on student understanding of mathematical concepts, with increased use of contexts and applications that will enable students to relate mathematics to everyday experience.

The initiative will also focus on developing students’ problem-solving skills. In parallel with changes in curriculum, there will be changes in the way mathematics is assessed, to reflect the different emphasis on understanding and skills in the teaching and learning of mathematics.

The Government aims to roll the programme out all over the country in 2010. “We want to pursue a failsafe mechanism that will drive participation rates in higher-level maths from 17pc to 30pc,” said O’Keefe.

By Sorcha Corcoran and John Kennedy