Leaving Cert higher level maths needs double the class time
In my opinion by Patricia McGrath
More students than ever are sitting the higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate, the new Project Maths syllabus, not necessarily due to it being either innovative or student-friendly, but because of the lure of the 25 bonus CAO points introduced in 2012.
Candidate numbers have increased from 8,237 in 2011 to 14,691 in 2015. Given the increase in Leaving Cert candidates generally, we can expect a further rise this year.
The failure rate has also risen, from 3.1pc in 2011 to 5.2pc in 2015. However, with the introduction of the new CAO points scheme in 2017, a current E grade (30-39pc) will become a H7 grade, and awarded 37 points, the same as a new, ordinary level grade 3 (O3). Students will be required to achieve a H6 to gain the 25-point bonus but, technically, H7 is a 'pass'. Candidates reapplying to college will have their E grade converted to a 'pass'. On 2015 statistics, that would translate as a success rate of 99.3pc for higher level maths, which is, by any standard, incredible.
As participation and success rates rocket, can we deduce that competence in maths has also improved accordingly? It would seem not. A Higher Education Authority report in January highlighted extremely high non-progression rates in engineering (23pc) and computer science (25pc), due to "the technical nature and mathematical content associated with the disciplines". Other research reports non-progression rates of up to 80pc in maths-based courses. A number of academics have expressed grave concerns regarding their students' mathematical skills.
So, what is the real situation? Firstly, Project Maths is marked quite differently from the old system, and has a marking scheme that most teachers consider generous. Secondly, in a 2012 report on Teaching and Learning in Project Maths, teachers reported that "their greatest perceived challenge in the implementation of Project Maths was time". This is, in my opinion, a huge factor. Increased numbers taking Project Maths means bigger class sizes. Furthermore, the extra students are likely to be weaker candidates, with a C or D Junior Certificate grade, who would, under the old system, be sitting ordinary level maths, which places an added demand on the teacher. Furthermore, Project Maths is a significantly longer course than its predecessor.
In Hewitt College, we taught the old course with three hours of class each week, with an extra one-hour tutorial for those who found the subject more challenging. Our present Sixth Year students have six hours of Project Maths weekly, and full-day revision tutorials during holidays.
Why do we allocate extra time and resources to Project Maths? Quite simply, because it works. Very few students drop to ordinary level, our exam results are high and most importantly, we can see that our students have a firm grasp of mathematical concepts. Many go on to study STEM college courses, so this knowledge is vital to their educational progression and career.
Doubling allocated class time for higher maths shouldn't just be available in one private school. Increased class time should be allocated to all students and teachers if they are to work successfully within the parameters of Project Maths. Another worry is the increasing number of students (+12.89pc in 2016) selecting courses in engineering/technology, the very areas reporting the highest dropout rates.
For some students, failing, or leaving a course will mark the end of their third-level studies. Repeating a year can incur college fees of up to €8,000, and when living expenses and accommodation are added, changing course is financially impossible for many already hard-pressed families. Given that practically all students will now 'pass' higher level maths, should more college courses have a minimum entry requirement in maths?
Patricia McGrath is principal of Hewitt College, Cork