Saturday 18 January 2020

All is not lost if you failed maths in the Leaving

The NPCpp’s Helpline was inundated with queries regarding maths failure and
how to deal with it. Photo: Getty Images
The NPCpp’s Helpline was inundated with queries regarding maths failure and how to deal with it. Photo: Getty Images

Betty McLaughlin

De réir an seanfhocal, Oileán na Naomh is na nOllamh - 'The Island of Saints and Scholars'. There has always and ever been a huge emphasis on academic achievement in Ireland. This old habit dies hard.

The perception of the need to do well academically is embedded in our students' brains. It goes a long way towards understanding why so many students in the class of 2016 took a last-minute decision to drop a level in maths - from higher to ordinary or ordinary to foundation level. Students are constantly and mistakenly perceiving their self-worth in terms of their academic performance, success or failure.

As educators, we are failing our young people in allowing them to perceive the Leaving Cert results as a public unveiling of their personal worth. Then we ask why do they fear exam failure and underperform.

Why did over 2,000 students register with the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to take higher-level papers in Leaving Cert subjects in February - then change to ordinary level in June? Many of these changes were last-minute rash decisions, influenced by the exam frenzy and the stress and pressure that this high-stakes, gateway exam places on their young shoulders.

Judging by the distressed calls to the NPCpp Exam Helpline from parents and students, one thing is certain - we need to embed into every aspect of school life, right across the curriculum, an easing of pressure, development of life-coping skills, managing information and thinking, managing emotions, communications and self-awareness - and above all, a resilience in how to stay well and keep well.

Following the results of the mock exams this year, the most common concern by far presenting from students to guidance counsellors was the fear of failure in maths.

Lack of confidence and self-belief goes a long way towards explaining how our young students - very often at the last minute - change level, placing a further burden on themselves in trying to grasp the different style of questions appropriate to that new level.

Very often, all students need is to talk to their guidance counsellors and maths teachers in order to tease out their real and understandable fears. They will receive the support, encouragement and information they need, before making a rushed or unnecessary change - often on the eve of the exam.

Information on maths requirements for college entry is lacking in schools and colleges in the wake of the devastating cuts to guidance counselling services since 2012. In the light of the number of students failing maths at both higher and ordinary level, it is time to review maths requirements where they are not needed or relevant to a further course of study. However, there is another school of thought - that we all need a certain standard of maths as a life skill.

The Project Maths exam paper is more word-based than the traditional maths exam, which may cause problems for students with specific learning difficulties or literacy-challenged students.

There is also a noticeable lack of choice on the maths exam paper: the student has to answer all six questions and students often report that this mitigates against them.

Many are lured into taking higher-level maths because of the generous prize of 25 CAO bonus points. Very often, time spent on grappling with the complexity of higher-level maths is detracting from students' ability to excel in their other subjects.

While the number of students taking foundation-level maths has risen this year, many perceive this level of maths as worthless as no CAO points are awarded for it, although a number of colleges do accept it as an entry requirement.

On the NPCpp Helpline yesterday, guidance counsellors were being inundated with queries regarding maths failure and how to deal with it, how to view exam scripts and appeal grades.

Many parents and students rang seeking information on second-chance maths exams, which are run in a number of universities and institutes of technology.

All is not lost, however, if you fail maths in the Leaving Cert.

It was with great difficulty that I convinced many callers to the helpline yesterday - very relieved and astonished parents and students - that despite their exam 'failure', they will still receive offers for arts, law, music, art, sports, social science, film and media, drama, creative computing and media technology, journalism and many more besides.

Betty McLaughlin is president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors

Irish Independent

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