Saturday 14 December 2019

Sinead Ryan: Ruairi Quinn miscalculated with maths call

Ruairi Quinn watches while the TUI’s Gerard Craughwell receives yet another standing ovation. Pat Moore
Ruairi Quinn watches while the TUI’s Gerard Craughwell receives yet another standing ovation. Pat Moore

Moving past the heckling, placard-waving and rudeness of some of the delegates at the teachers' conferences this week, many of whom would suspend their students for similar behaviour, perhaps we can all stop dancing around the big elephant in the room that the minister has been avoiding.

Ruairi Quinn said he intends to make Honours Maths a minimum requirement for primary teacher training. Advanced calculus is now needed, he reckons, to teach five-year-olds their ABCs. Good luck.

I'm all for getting the best qualified pros, but if we're looking at big-picture stuff, here's one I'd be happier Mr Quinn finished painting before worrying that our pre-pubescents are losing out in class.

According to a 2012 report from the National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and Learning (phew!) at the University of Limerick, 48pc of second-level maths teachers don't have a maths qualification.

That's not just teachers in general, Ruairi, it's MATHS teachers.

So, almost half of maths teachers drafted in to teach the subject to second-level students have a degree instead in business or science or perhaps history or music. These “out-of-field” teachers are generally given the Ordinary level, non-exam classes to teach as their second subject – the ones you'd imagine Ruairi is trying to encourage to get a leg-up into the Honours level. What are their chances?

The requirements for secondary school teaching are a primary degree in a curriculum topic and an H.Dip which qualifies them to “teach”. Many voluntarily go on to further studies to give them extra subjects under their belts, but it is not compulsory, or even – by these figures – a vague ambition that our maths teachers have a degree in maths. Extraordinary.

A new two-year diploma was swiftly launched after the embarrassing report to try to address this yawning gap. Again, it's not compulsory, and leaves it to the more enthusiastic teachers to undergo it in their own time, but perhaps the graduates of the Diploma in Maths for Teaching might help boost the appalling numbers.


This isn't the teachers’ fault. It was never a requirement. It simply didn't compute that teaching maths might require a fundamental qualification in the subject.

When you think that maths is, quite rightly, a compulsory subject at Leaving Cert level, with more than 50,000 students taking it every year, and that the department rates it so highly that it alone benefits from a vital, extra 25 points for the one in four taking Honours, you'd imagine they'd want to ensure that there are enough qualified teachers to get to grips with the course.

Not a bit of it. But when it comes to facing a class of 9-year-olds, Miss had better be sure she's boned up on her quadratic equations.

Dr Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel, said that getting maths teachers up to scratch was one of the top 10 things Ireland needed to get to grips with. He is joined by many professors who find students simply aren't prepared when it comes to the complex maths required for computer, science and engineering degrees. Hardly surprising, if their maths teacher studied geography.

One of the key requirements for mathematics, according to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is, “analysing, interpreting and drawing inferences from data”.

Mr Quinn would be well-advised to do the same. The problem is not that primary school teachers can’t do their sums, it’s that their second-level colleagues can’t do them either.

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