Maths teachers need tech industry help

18 Aug 2010

Because industries like technology attract the best and the brightest the problem of non-qualified teachers teaching honours maths needs to be arrested with industry help, Engineers Ireland said today.

Despite the limited introduction of Project Maths in this year’s Leaving Cert exams, the devastating fact that not only have the number of students taking maths fallen by 3pc but the ABC rate for higher-level maths is down 3pc.

Project Maths – which piloted in only 24 schools this year – is credited with boosting participation in higher level maths by 18.7pc so it is an imperative that it is introduced across all secondary schools in the country this year.

But instead of criticising maths teachers, industry needs to do more to support them to teach maths in a manner that helps students fully engage with the real-life applications of the subject, according to the director-general of Engineers Ireland, John Power.

Speaking as the Leaving Certificate 2010 results indicated that just 16pc of students sat the higher level maths paper while 4,300 failed the subject across all levels, Power said a more holistic approach was needed to tackle the issues around maths.

“While the latest figures indicating that the failure rate in higher level maths has gone up by 5.5pc are disappointing, it’s very easy to once again castigate teachers and their ability to teach the subject.

“Quite clearly, maths teachers must have the requisite expertise to teach maths at all levels. But an Engineers Ireland survey last week of Leaving Cert maths students showed that 71pc at higher level rated their maths teacher as excellent or good.

“This suggests there are a lot of strong teachers out there that have the respect and attention of their students. What is needed to tackle the maths problem is much greater support for maths teachers in the class room – and this needs to come, not just from Government but from industry and business also.

“The preliminary data around Project Maths is encouraging, with 18.7pc of students taking higher level maths from 24 schools in the pilot programme, compared to 16pc among all mathematics candidates.

“However, it will be two to five years before we have any meaningful data on the initiative and with 41pc of ordinary level students in the Engineers Ireland survey last week believing that higher level maths is too time consuming, what is needed is greater support for teachers.

Points system

“We need to give maths the time it deserves in the classroom. Bearing in mind the CAO use six subjects to calculate points for third level courses, there is an argument that students should only take six subjects during school time. This would allow teachers to focus on the key subjects, such as maths, that are integral to students finding jobs on graduating. Let’s focus on quality not quantity,” Power said.

He said that Engineers Ireland is also currently linking with UCD’s College of Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences to encourage more engineering students to participate in the Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme and assist secondary school maths teachers with the delivery of the maths curriculum.

“It’s easy to criticise the system but there needs to be more pragmatic initiatives such as this from industry to tackle the maths deficiencies that exist in this country.

“In essence, if Ireland is to regain competitiveness on a global scale, we need graduates with the key skills, which means graduates with proficiency in maths. We need to work harder to change the perception of maths at an earlier stage in schools.

“Engineers Ireland continues to highlight the direct link between the poor standards in maths and the shortage of engineers entering Irish industry. The smart economy and the recovery of Ireland Inc are not viable without enough graduates with the requisite maths skills to become engineers,” Power said.

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