THERE has been a massive rise in the number of Junior Certificate candidates taking higher-level maths this year, as young students sharpen their focus on college and career choices.
The wave of interest at junior cycle follows a similar surge at Leaving Certificate level since the introduction of 25 bonus CAO points for the subject.
The new 'project maths' syllabus being phased in for both Junior and Leaving Cert students is another factor in the increased uptake at higher level.
It is good news for the Government and employers, who have been trying to boost maths performance and ensure that school-leavers have the skills necessary to live and work in the 'smart economy'.
As many as 66pc of Junior Cert candidates are planning to take the subject at higher level in the June exams, according to the latest data from the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
It's a record high, up from the 49pc of candidates who entered for higher level last year and an even bigger jump when compared with previous years.
Figures released to the Irish Independent show 39,980 of the 61,011 candidates entered for the Junior Cert are planning to take higher-level maths, compared with about 29,000 this time last year.
While the data is based on current intentions, and is subject to change up to the moment the student is handed an exam paper in June, any drop-off will be from the record high base.
Bonus CAO points are now awarded for a minimum grade D in Leaving Cert maths, aimed at encouraging good, ordinary-level students to raise their sights while rewarding them for the extra effort.
Although the impact of the bonus on CAO offers last year was limited, the switch to higher level is clearly driven by the hope of gaining the bonus – and a fear of being left behind in the points race without it.
The surge at Junior Cert reflects the need to think about Leaving Cert choices well in advance of entering the senior cycle. A student who has not at least attempted higher-level maths in the Junior Cert has little or no chance to study at higher level for the Leaving Cert.
Recent SEC figures published by the Irish Independent showed that entries for higher-level maths at Leaving Cert level are up about 50pc in two years.
Tony Donohoe, head of education policy with employers' organisation IBEC, said it was very encouraging to see increasing numbers of young people, who were capable of achieving good grades in ordinary level, moving up a level. "This is a very significant increase, which shows that students are putting in the groundwork well in advance of the Leaving Cert."
He said maths skills were in big demand from high-value, knowledge-intensive businesses that would drive economic recovery, but a good numeracy was also critical to function effectively in modern workplaces and society.
Mr Donohoe urged the Government to continue its efforts to improve the level of maths attainment in schools and, in particular, the quality of teaching.
"This issue has become even more critical with the introduction of the new project maths syllabus, which requires a deeper understanding of the application of mathematical concepts by both teachers and students alike."