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Saturday 30 August 2014

Forget honours maths, primary schools need changes that will really add up for pupils

Colette Brown

Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30

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If Ruairi Quinn wants to improve educational outcomes at primary level, he needs to tackle disadvantage, not tinker around with an honours maths requirement for teachers.

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Speaking at the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) annual conference yesterday, the Education Minister made an unfortunate inference.

Noting his "highly feminised audience", the minister said that in an effort to "ensure we have the best quality teachers in every classroom", he would be making honours maths a mandatory requirement.

Or, to paraphrase, innumerate women are disproportionately represented among teaching staff and this is having a detrimental impact on children's education.

At least that's the inference the delegates, who instantly started booing the minister, drew from his clumsy comments.

However, if the minister's comment was ill-judged, then so was INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan's response.

Opening with "hell hath no fury", she said: "It was the boys who did the honours maths that led the country to ruination."

Now, we can blame a lot of factors for the banking collapse – lax regulation, idiot politicians, greedy bankers – but honours maths is not one of them.

Mr Quinn will deny it, but the sudden insistence that honours maths be a requirement for primary school teaching smacks of a crude way of trying to address the gender imbalance in the profession.

A similar scheme was cooked up in 2009 with the introduction of the HPat exam for students hoping to study medicine. Ostensibly introduced to "complement academic achievement by providing assessment of skills in the areas of reasoning, understanding and working with people", what it actually did was dramatically reduce the number of female candidates from 60pc to 52pc.

Strangely, while politicians are prone to wring their hands about the "feminisation" of professions like teaching, I have yet to hear the same level of concern raised about the "male-ification" of professions like engineering.

Additionally, the minister has yet to explain why primary school teachers with an honours maths background will make better teachers.

It's not as if primary school children are going to be learning advanced maths, so why should teachers be required to have a background in that subject?

Is it not more important that teachers have a general competence in a variety of subjects and those with a vocation for teaching are not prevented from joining the profession because they don't excel at maths?

Certainly, the requirement that teachers have honours Irish has been a dismal failure at improving fluency rates in that subject and, in fact, has only served to reduce the numbers of young men, only one-third of whom opt to study it, who enter teaching.

If the minister really wants to do something about Ireland's low literacy and numeracy rates, then he should abandon his nonsensical focus on honours maths and tackle inequality in the education system.

According to a recent OECD report, Irish pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are 2.4 times more likely to be low performers than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

It also found that Irish schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students are more likely to experience social and economic problems that inhibit learning.

This is why continued investment in the Delivering Equality In Schools (DEIS) programme, which exists to try to ameliorate these endemic problems, is so essential.

These schools typically have higher proportions of students from the travelling community, students with special educational needs and students for whom English is a second language.

Consequently, they need additional supports but, instead of ring-fencing funding, this Government has presided over a slashing of the DEIS programme, which is undoubtedly having a detrimental impact.

English language support teachers have been cut, resource hours for students from the travelling community have been decimated, capitation grants have been reduced and the numbers of special needs assistants has been slashed.

Meanwhile, as support services for the most vulnerable students have been systematically stripped away, the €100m subsidy for fee-paying schools has remained intact.

This inequity is something that the minister, judging by previous comments, doesn't lose too much sleep over.

Speaking in 2012, he expressed ambivalence about an OECD report that found pupils from fee-paying schools are about two years ahead in literacy rates when compared with those from vocational schools.

"It all begins at home with the parents. A middle-class child will have a vocabulary probably at least twice the size of a working-class child before they get to pre-school," he said.

This is true, but begs an obvious question. Why is the State subsidising these already advantaged children to the tune of €100m when that money could be funnelled to those who need the help most?

Mandating that teachers have honours maths is all well and good, but what about an insistence that teachers have access to materials and resources that will practically support them in their jobs?

If the minister really wants to do something that would immediately improve educational outcomes for children, the answer is simple: forget his honours maths obsession and restore funding to support services for disadvantaged children.

Irish Independent

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