Saturday 18 November 2017

Poor standard of maths and science 'costs €8bn a year'

Irish teens branded average

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

IRELAND could be an average of €8bn a year better off if today's 15-year-olds were world-class students of science and maths.

Raising the educational achievement of Irish teenagers to the standard of the world's top performer, Finland, would deliver major benefits to the economy through high-skilled jobs.

The room for improvement has been identified in a report from the Paris-based think tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It examines, for the first time, the high cost of low educational performance, putting a value on how much it would be worth to a country if its 15-year-olds matched the Finns.

A good grasp of maths and science is regarded as an essential foundation for developing the necessary brainpower for high-skilled jobs in a "smart" economy.

The report uses new economic techniques to draw a link between educational abilities and economic growth.

It puts a new focus on Ireland's "average" rating in maths and science, and efforts to boost interest and performance of second-level students in these key subjects.

The report uses educational attainment levels in Finland as a benchmark, as measured by OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies.

PISA surveys focus on maths, science and reading scores for 15-year-olds, which reveal wide differences in the performance of education systems.

While Irish students score well on reading, there is concern that they rate only average in maths and slightly above average in science.

The report indicates that relatively small improvements in the skills of a nation's labour force can have very large impacts on future well-being.

It traces the potential gain to the economies of 23 countries over 80 years of bringing educational performance up to the level of the Finns.

According to its calculations, Ireland stands to reap the equivalent of €635bn by 2090 -- an average of €8bn a year and about 5pc of the current value of the economy.


That's almost the same as the Department of Education and Science's annual budget, whose outgoings include paying for 65,000 teachers and lecturers, building schools and covering the college tuition costs for 140,000 students.

The report cautions that there are a lot of uncertainties with such long-term projections, but concludes that building key skills in students brings the most reward to economies in the longer term.

Sean McDonagh, former director of Dundalk Institute of Technology, who also headed up the Government Skills Initiative, said disappointing PISA results had not received proper attention here, while in Germany there was national uproar over their outcomes.

He said as well as concern over the average maths rating, it was very worrying that PISA found that Ireland was below the EU average in the number of high achievers in maths.

"I can't think of any stronger recommendation than to aim to achieve cognitive skills at the level of Finland," he said. "If cognitive skills are instilled in 15-year-olds they will go to upper secondary and third level."

One of the issues raised in relation to the poor maths performance is the fact that not all maths teachers have a qualification in the subject.

An Engineers Ireland survey, released today, found that 80pc believed that making a maths qualification compulsory would improve Leaving Cert results.

Engineers Ireland Director General John Power said: "This insight very much confirms the general view that there needs to be drastic change to help students get to grips with this critical subject."

A report last week found that mathematical knowledge levels varied widely among primary teachers.

While primary teachers take courses in maths methods, they are not required to study mathematics during their teacher education programmes, although some do, according to the report authored by Dr Sean Delaney, a senior lecturer in Colaiste Mhuire, Marino Institute of Education.

When teachers are offered professional development, the goal is usually to improve their teaching methods rather than their mathematical knowledge, he found.

Irish Independent

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