Numbers still don’t add up for Leaving Cert maths and sciences

17 Aug 2011

It’s a glass half-full, half-empty kind of picture. On the one hand, we can rejoice that the numbers of Irish students achieving A, B and C grades in high-level maths is at its highest, but the more sobering reality is maths failure rates are also at their highest yet.

In results that show the Irish education system to resemble A Tale of Two Cities, higher-level maths performance is up while the ordinary-level maths performance by Leaving Cert students is down.

Students achieving an A, B or C at higher level were up 77pc – and up 64pc since 1992. Some 43pc of Irish Leaving Cert students took higher-level maths.

However, out of the remainder who took ordinary maths, 10pc failed the exam. Overall, 4,367 students failed maths across all levels.

The news is not good for the technology and biopharma sectors in Ireland that have jobs available and require a pipeline of graduates proficient in maths and sciences.

OECD PISA research has already pinpointed an alarming decrease in literacy and numeracy levels in Irish schools.

This year’s Leaving Cert also revealed high failure rates in a range of science subjects, such as physics (8pc), chemistry (9pc) and biology (8pc).

Time for reform

As almost 58,000 students get their Leaving Cert results today, IBEC is calling for a “major reform” of the system, due to what it is calling disappointing results in maths and sciences yet again.

IBEC has said reform of the maths curriculum would need full support of the education system, along with adequate funding.

The divide between honours and ordinary-level performance indicates potential grade inflation and the evil of a college points system that needs to be overhauled in favour of something more realistic.

Education Minister Ruairí Quinn has conceded that the Leaving Cert points system is “part of our problem”. Quinn is set to meet Leaving Cert students in Clifden, Co Galway, this morning.

Last night, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland also criticised the “discernable improvements” in science. The organisation represents more than 600 US companies in Ireland.

Time to listen to what the students have to say

We need to do a better job listening to the difficulties our students are encountering with the maths syllabus and integrate their feedback into reform around teaching of the subject, according to the Director General of Engineers Ireland, John Power. 

He said the Leaving Certificate 2011 results indicated again that just 16pc of students sat the higher level maths paper, by far the lowest rate of any honours paper, while over 4,300 failed the subject across all levels. Power said students were crying out for assistance to better understand the rigours of the subject.

“We need to listen to our students who clearly find the rigours of the subject in its current form too difficult.  In an Engineers Ireland survey of Leaving Cert maths students earlier this week, 81pc said their maths teachers need to give them more practical, every-day applications for maths to aid learning.  This is a staggering figure that can not be ignored,” Power added.   

“On this day every year for as long as I can remember, poor maths and science results have led to the usual clamour for new investment in education and so on.  But the views of the only people that really matter, the students, often seem to be lost in the hue and cry that results.  And students are quite clearly voicing their concerns about how the subject is taught.  This is what needs to be reflected in any reform or industry initiatives.

“The Government clearly faces difficult fiscal constraints and can only work within its means soany reform of our education system needs to be measured and judicious.  The Project Maths roll-out offers promise but there needs to be more supports from industry to shift maths teaching towards explaining the every-day relevance of the subject.  The Engineers Ireland’s free maths grinds programme throughout the academic year allows us to interact with students on an ongoing basis and throws up one consistent theme: students need a different type of teaching and more supports to fully understand maths.”

In a survey of 180 maths students by Engineers Ireland who sat the Leaving Certificate this year, over 64pc of Leaving Certificate maths students said they would like class numbers halved to help them cope with the challenges of the subject. 81pc said their maths teachers need to give them more practical, every-day applications for maths to aid learning. 55pc said they felt their maths teachers needed extra training to teach the subject and over 46% of maths students said they needed grinds outside the classroom.

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