Tuesday 21 October 2014

Ruairi Quinn: Finally, the numbers look good for maths as 17,000 students aim higher

Ruairi Quinn

Published 03/03/2014 | 02:30

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MATHS matters. It's as simple as that. We need to be proficient in maths for so much of our everyday lives. From counting to measuring, from juggling our income versus our expenditure to working out the distance to our destination, from calculating sports scores to saving for that rainy day.

But, maths matters for our economy, too. We need young people who are not only competent but excel in maths for careers in engineering, research, digital technologies, and other growth areas. Without excellence in maths, we will not be able to attract and retain foreign direct investment into Ireland – the Googles, Apples and Facebooks. Nor will we be able to foster the development and growth of new Irish companies immersed in the digital age.

That's why such a large emphasis is placed on maths in our education system. From the moment a child begins school until they leave aged 18, our children are immersed in maths.

A worrying trend was the low numbers of students who were opting to sit higher-level maths at Leaving Cert. This meant in turn that the pool of students who could study Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering – or STEM subjects – at third level was getting smaller.

The Department of Education and Skills decided to tackle this on two fronts – Project Maths and bonus points for Maths.

Project Maths is intended to change the way students encounter mathematics in second level schools; to move away from rote learning and to deepen their understanding of the subject. Project Maths is designed to encourage better understanding of mathematics, to reinforce its practical relevance to everyday life, and to ensure better continuity between primary and second level, and junior and senior cycle. Introduced in 2009, it has had its detractors, but overall I believe the new ways of teaching and learning are a success.

Project Maths is also a great precursor to the new JCSA, which focuses on students and how they learn rather than simply preparing them for terminal exams.

One of my predecessors, Mary Coughlan, also paved the way for the introduction of bonus points for higher-level Leaving Certificate maths. She convinced all third-level institutions, who collectively own and operate the CAO system, to introduce the bonus scheme. As of 2012, any student who scores a D or above in higher-level maths, receives 25 bonus points.

I've said before, our young people are very astute when selecting their subject choices for the Leaving Cert. And there is little doubt that before the bonus points system, many had decided that even though they were capable of achieving a pass or better in higher-level maths that the rewards were not great enough to entice them to do so.

Now that bonus points are available, our young people are voting with their heads. It is very welcome to see the early indications from the SEC that this year 31pc of Leaving Cert students – or more than 17,000 – have indicated that they will sit the higher paper.

As in other years, there will likely be a drop off in the actual numbers come June. But, we are certainly seeing a dramatic increase, up from 15.8pc in 2011 to 25.6pc in 2013 who actually sat the higher paper.

The target participation rate, as set out in the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy I launched in 2011, is 30pc by 2020. I believe that this is now clearly achievable.

We are also seeing a very welcome 'backwash' effect, with the numbers of young people sitting higher level maths at Junior Cycle also improving; 52pc of mathematics students took the higher level paper in 2013 up from 48pc in 2012 and 46pc in 2011. As part of the roll-out of the bonus points scheme over a four-year period, a review was promised mid-way.

That review by the Irish Universities Association is under way and I look forward to receiving their report.

In order to have great maths students, we need great maths teachers. One of the issues we had to grapple with on this front was the "out of field" maths teachers, or those who were teaching maths without a maths qualification.

WE introduced a professional diploma in mathematics for such teachers two years ago. More than 600 teachers are taking part in the course which is available nationally, free of charge. A further intake of teachers is planned for September.

While the course is challenging in terms of commitment and rigour, feedback indicates it is proving popular with participants and their schools who find it to be of great value. I applaud the teachers who have participated in this course.

This initiative has cost the department some €3m alone and is just one of the initiatives we have aimed at up-skilling our maths teachers. It shows our commitment to supporting the teaching of maths, and maths teachers in our schools.

On the Project Maths front, to date 10 workshops have been offered to all maths teachers on a rolling basis as each strand of the curriculum has been implemented.

The workshops have encouraged teachers to adapt teaching strategies appropriate to the various curriculum strands and to developing student skills in critical areas such as problem solving.

These teachers are crucial in ensuring that more students opt for and sit higher-level maths.

The preliminary figures from the SEC on these numbers are encouraging. These 17,000 students clearly also think that maths matters.

RUAIRI QUINN IS MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND SKILLS

Irish Independent

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