Saturday 1 October 2016

Teachers add maths to their skillset

Inside geography, science and business teachers, there is a maths teacher waiting to get out

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Newly qualified maths teacher Fiona Keary helps Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School Drimnagh students Jack Hartigan and Thomas McDonnell (13). Photo: Frank Mc Grath.
Newly qualified maths teacher Fiona Keary helps Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School Drimnagh students Jack Hartigan and Thomas McDonnell (13). Photo: Frank Mc Grath.

It came as quite a shock some years ago to learn that half the maths teachers in second-level schools were not qualified to teach the subject.

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But a new initiative is showing that, all over the country, inside teachers of geography, science, business, and other subjects there is a maths teacher waiting to get out.

The finding, in 2010, that 48pc of maths teachers were not properly qualified, emerged in research conducted by Dr Máire Ní Riordáin and Professor Ailish Hannigan at the then National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and Learning (NCEMSTL), now called EPI*STEM, National Centre for STEM Education, based at the University of Limerick (UL).

What made it more worrying was evidence that teachers qualified in maths were gradually disappearing: 65pc of maths teachers aged over 35 had a proper qualification, compared with 40pc among those aged under 35.

At the time the report was published, only about 16pc of Leaving Cert students were sitting higher level papers, about half of the Government's target if the country is to have a pipeline of school-leavers and graduates with skills essential for a modern economy.

There were also concerns that Irish teenagers were presenting as below average in maths in global surveys known as PISA, conducted by the international think-tank the OECD. Multi-national companies were demanding better.

There was a national tendency to shrug and sigh that maths was not a strong point of the poetic Irish. But the NCEMSTL report presented an incontrovertible case to seek answers elsewhere - starting with doing something about the quality of teaching.

Faced with a shortage of qualified teachers, principals tend to turn to someone with a degree, most likely in science or business, to fill the gap.

Raising maths standards became a national priority. Among the Government responses was a programme to upskill what are known as 'out of field' maths teachers - those teaching maths whose main qualification is in a different subject.

Many bring a significant background and commitment to maths teaching, but are fully qualified to do so.

The programme was an historic step in terms of supporting maths teaching in post-primary schools.

A contract to run what is called the Professional Diploma in Mathematics for Teaching (PDMT) was awarded to NCE-MSTL, now EPI*STEM. It is jointly accredited by UL and NUI Galway, and, most importantly, recognised by the Teaching Council.

While EPI*STEM is responsible for course design and delivery, the programme involves a national consortium of higher education institutions, also including UCD, DCU and a number of institutes of technology and other colleges.

The Department of Education awarded a four-year contract to run the part-time, two year programme, leading to a Level 8 qualification, which is fully funded by the State, so participating teachers pay no fees.

Because it has to be accessible to teachers all over the country, it is delivered through a blended learning approach, with both online and face-to-face teaching, at a number of regional centres. As well as the network of third-level colleges, teacher education centres are also used and Google Ireland is a technology partner.

It is deemed a huge success and, to date, 528 teachers have graduated. The third class is due to finish soon and the fourth group will complete their studies next year, bringing the original contract to an end.

However, the Department of Education recently approved a fifth intake, to start next September, for which EPI*STEM is seeking applications.

The course is open to 'out of field' maths teachers, who teach at least one maths class a week.

While these are generally science, business or geography teachers, PDMT academic advisor, Dr Niamh O'Meara says they have also had students from other disciplines.

PDMT director, Professor Paul Conway of the Faculty of Education and Health Sciences, UL, says one of the big issues in teacher supply, not only in Ireland, but internationally, is fully qualified teachers in all science technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas, particularly maths.

He says the graduation rate on the course is a very high, at above 90pc: "It is a demanding programme but supports are in place in so far as possible to ensure that everyone who starts, finishes."

Prof Conway estimates that, when the first five cohorts finish by 2018, there will be about 1,000 graduates, who he says, will make very considerable contribution to maths teaching in Ireland.

The roll-out of the programme coincided with the phasing in of the new Project Maths syllabus, providing an added benefit in ensuring that the newly qualified teachers are well equipped for that.

The challenges in delivering a high-quality maths education was referred to in reports from the chief examiner on last year's Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate maths exams, which were published last week by the State Examinations Commission (SEC).

The reports noted that all countries grapple with the issue and acknowledge the range of initiatives put in place in Ireland in recent years, including the PDMT programme for 'out-of-field' teachers.

'The maths upskilling course was a great string to my bow'

Fiona Keary was teaching maths without being properly qualified in the subject. The Mullingar, Co Westmeath, native graduated from the University of Limerick with a science teaching qualification, but with a shortage of qualified maths teachers, she stepped into the breach as the need arose, taking classes up to Leaving Certificate ordinary level standard.

Maths was one of her strengths and she had covered a lot during her third-level studies but says "I fell short in terms of credits to have a Teaching Council qualification."

Ms Keary, who works in Our Lady's Secondary, School, Mourne Road, Drimnagh, Dublin jumped at the chance to do the PDMT course and graduated in January.

"It's a great string to my bow and it has definitely increased my confidence in teaching maths," says Ms Keary, who can now also take a Leaving Certificate higher level class.

Irish Independent

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