Saturday 1 October 2016

Maths is not for everyone, it's why we have calculators

It is time we got over the embarrassment of not passing the subject in the Leaving Cert

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

'Is it really so terrible to acknowledge that some people are useless at maths? It’s not a crime.' Stock image: Depositphotos
'Is it really so terrible to acknowledge that some people are useless at maths? It’s not a crime.' Stock image: Depositphotos

Even as the scene unfolded, I felt I was in a play. Picture a messy, feminine attic bedroom. The poor girl who got her Leaving Certificate results that morning sat up in bed, still in her pyjamas, quilt pulled around her. Sobbing, she brushed her long hair back off her face whilst taking a drag from a cigarette, intensely typing at her laptop; presumably chatting to her classmates or that boyfriend we didn't like.

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Around her sat the aunt, her stepmother and me; a kind of honorary aunt who'd been sent for once the red button has been pressed. We clutched glasses of lukewarm champagne and smoked, even though I'd long given up smoking. Her little sister, choking quietly, asked politely if it was okay to open the Velux window above us.

"Look, it'll be fine. You're good looking. Trust us. That'll count for more in the long run," counselled the aunt, in an unconvincing ironic tone.

The stepmother and I threw our feminist principles out the window and bitterly concurred. "And your mother [currently out of the country] is probably on the phone now bullying some college into taking you in."

Bloody maths. Who decided our existence had to depend on bloody maths? The rest of her Leaving Certificate results were pretty good. She'd bagged a few decent honours, but had failed maths. Turns out that all the colleges she'd applied to for various humanities and communications degrees would veto her application even if she got the points. No maths. No college place.

I thought of her when I saw the concerned headlines last week over the increasing numbers who'd failed maths in this year's Leaving Cert.

Tears and disasters in all those houses, and for what? Who decided that an inability to cope with theorems should be the greatest shame of this exam and the cause of national hand-wringing?

Is it really so terrible to acknowledge that some people are useless at maths? It's not a crime.

Fortunately for my tearful heroine, she'd applied to a British university that, unlike the CAO system here, doesn't rely solely on exam results. She'd done an interview with them earlier in the year, which had gone very well. Together with the decent results in her other subjects and the interventionist mother, a month later she was enrolling in a highly regarded degree course across the water.

In response to the numbers failing ordinary level maths this year (3,000 - representing 9.2pc of those who take the course; up from 5.8pc last year) the Minister for Education Richard Bruton has promised to look at the curriculum. I'd urge him not to bother. Making the exam easier is not the right response to a high failure rate.

You can keep dropping the standard so that eventually everyone passes, but what does that achieve, except to undermine the entire exam?

Apart from damaging the reputation of the Leaving Certificate, which is already under suspicion for grade inflation, it also seriously distorts third level participation rates.

You see, despite the narrative that getting into college now is extremely competitive, in fact getting into college has never been easier. The number of third level places wildly increased from the 1990s onwards. Even in the past five years of recession, college places increased by 14pc. The result? Thousands of students enrolling in a ridiculously high number of courses for which they are entirely unsuited. The result is not a better educated citizenry, but a high drop-out rate. And guess where the highest drop-out rates are?

They're in the Institutes of Technology in courses that require competency in maths. Engineering (excluding civil engineering), construction studies and of course, computer science, where over one quarter of students dropped out in their first year. Academics have specifically pinpointed weakness in maths as the reason behind this inability to complete the year in these subjects. So these are students that have passed maths, but discover that's not enough. Why make this worse by "taking a look" at the curriculum to help more students pass?

The Higher Education Authority report on "non-progression" published earlier this year observed that drop-out rates can be directly related to performance in the Leaving Certificate.

As points for Institute of Technology courses are lower than for universities, that means they are taking in weaker students, and those students just aren't fit for the courses. This is particularly stark when it comes to those courses like computer science, which has a drop-out rate in the ITs of 26pc, but only 15pc in similar courses in universities.

The point being, you can increase the number of the college places which has the effect of lowering the points required for entry; but if the student is weak at maths, you're just wasting everyone's time and money.

Of course, this leads to two obvious questions. One, why are students applying for these courses if they're not suited to them? And two, can anything be done to help students improve their maths skills (rather than help them simply pass the exam)?

For the first, students are responding to the relentless drive from the Government and employers that the future is science. But it's not fair to sell this to pupils. I know a very intelligent girl who was seduced after her Junior Certificate by the politics promoting science. Sold on the importance of women taking these subjects, she picked physics and chemistry as Leaving Certificate options. It was a mistake. Her talents are more literary. She easily produced As in English and history, but worked hard to get Cs in the science subjects, which dragged down her points score and left her scrambling for courses.

So let's hold back on the marketing. People should study what suits them.

As to the second, there must be a focus on teaching. That starts in primary school and is particularly critical in the Junior Cert cycle, where the weakest teachers are deployed. A great teacher, or a terrible teacher, can make all the difference. So don't waste time messing with the curriculum. Get training instead.

Finally, I would love to see more emphasis on maths puzzles and games. The internet has extraordinary sites, many for free, where children play maths games without feeling under the cosh. Some teachers are enthusiastic about this approach, but I get the sense it's a low priority.

But even at that, we'll just have to accept the awful truth that God invented calculators for a reason; failing maths does not mean you'll fail in life.

Sunday Independent

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