Sunday 26 February 2017

In my opinion: The problem is not maths itself, but the culture of fear growing around it

Ferdia Kelly

The perception that the majority of Irish students are taught mathematics by 'unqualified teachers' does not stand up to scrutiny.

'Pure mathematics' graduates are actually quite rare. The vast majority of maths teachers in Ireland have the subject as a component of their primary degree, often coupled with another subject such as geography, business or a language.

The new emphasis on problem solving and real-life applicability of mathematics in the new Project Maths course also means graduates with engineering and other applied maths backgrounds are particularly well placed to become highly effective teachers.

As registration licenses teachers to teach, it is a matter for school management to ensure an optimum match between qualifications, subjects and classes.

Of course, not every teacher can teach every subject -- our system does not produce 'general practitioners'.

The Joint Managerial Body (JMB) supports the call for further research into the teaching of mathematics in our schools. What is certain, however, is that simply awarding bonus points for higher level maths results will ultimately fail to produce the desired results of increasing already over-subscribed science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses.

Instead, the approach to teaching and learning will motivate more students to participate in higher level maths courses. It is expected that Project Maths will be taken by all Leaving Certificate pupils in 2014 and all Junior Certificate pupils in 2015.

As maths is perceived as a "difficult" subject that demands a large time commitment to the detriment of the overall package of subjects, a "fear" has developed around it.

Of course we need highly motivated, well-resourced and well-qualified teachers but the real task is to focus on addressing the "fear" of maths.

In light of the Minister for Education and Skills's expressed anxiety around the outcomes of this year's Leaving Certificate mathematics results, the JMB, on behalf of boards of management and school principals in voluntary secondary schools, agree that the 10 per cent failure rate at ordinary level and the low uptake of higher level demand attention -- but not the kind of "attention" that will be achieved by cutting the number of teachers of mathematics and other subjects in December's Budget.

A further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in the next Budget will lead to a lower-uptake of subjects such as physics and chemistry.

Some schools will be unable to offer higher-level subjects such as Irish and mathematics in distinct classes if the number of teachers is cut.

Irish post-primary students have been well served by the breadth of curricular options open to them. An increase in PTR will seriously impact on such arrangements.

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