Since the publication of this year's Leaving Certificate results on Wednesday, numerous commentators and multi-national companies have been commenting on the low standards in mathematics and science amongst this year's cohort. They are saying that the failure rates for maths and science subjects is unacceptably high and that this will have an negative effect on the government's plans for the development of a "smart economy". Such a smart economy is based around the facilitation of science, engineering and manufacturing companies employing well educated and well trained Irish graduates. This is a significant issue, but there is a clouding of the facts which needs to be addressed.
It is true to say that the numbers sitting Leaving Cert maths at higher level is too low. It is also fair to say that the failure rates in maths are too high. But I have a level of sympathy for the Department of Education and Skills on this issue. Firstly, maths is a compulsory subject at Leaving Cert level and the standards set are very high - comparable with Scottish Highers but slightly below the standards of A-Level (where pupils sit only three subjects) or International Baccalaureate (IB). This means that when comparing the results obtained by Irish pupils in mathematics with those in English, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or those sitting the IB, Irish pupils simply won't match up, as none of these system require compulsory mathematics in their terminal exams. Ireland is very much the exception rather than the norm in insisting on all pupils sit mathematics. In the UK, only 77,000 of the 310,000 pupils (around 24%) sitting A-Levels did mathematics, of which over a ridiculous 40% achieved an A grade (an A grade in Ireland is reserved for pupils obtaining 85% or above while in the UK a pupil achieving over 70% obtains an A grade). You simply cannot compare the two. If maths was to be made optional at Leaving Cert level, I am sure our standards would compare much more favourably with our nearest neighbours. Project Maths, the new initiative piloted this year, did produce slightly higher percentages of A grades and lower failure rates - but I think everyone expected that to happen. Whether this was because of a better understanding of the principles or a more lenient marking scheme, I don't know, but I do welcome a more practical and relevant approach to teaching and learning about mathematics.