Saturday, August 21, 2010

Standards in Maths and Science

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. 

Recommended Apps - Awesome Note

Teachers return to the classroom shortly and will soon be neck high in homework to read, copies to correct, tests to mark, phone calls to make, emails to send and some might even have blogs to write (go on - get blogging with your pupils this September). All this means that busy teachers will need to get organised and Awesome Note is a brilliant app for the iPhone that will help you do just that.

Awesome Note is an innovative note taking application and "to-do" manager that allow you to combine notes with to-do flexibility. Users are able to customise how they want their notes categorised by creating different folder icons, which can be further customised with colours, fonts and backgrounds. The app is very versatile allowing you create simple scheduled notes to notes with photo attachments, To-Do's to organise your day and post-it style quick "memos" to quickly jot down your thoughts. You can even send notes with photos as emails to friends and colleague and synchronise your notes to Google Docs or your Evernote account. Awesome Note allows you easily jot down your ideas, thoughts and memos, and create daily diary, travel diary, email box, checklist, shopping list, to-do list, scheduler and anything else you want and sort them into custom categories. You can even protect some folders using passwords (I have a very handy PIN's & Passwords folder).

To download Awesome Note click here. The full version costs just €2.99, but you can download a free "lite" version to trial. Click here to download the "lite" version. Awesome Note is an excellent, simple but powerful app that works for me and hopefully it will work for you too.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Leaving Cert - Should it stay?

Reports in our national newspapers yesterday informed us that pupils sitting the Leaving Certificate are stressed! Shock horror! Who knew? 

Well apparently it took a new ESRI study (working on behalf of the NCCA) to find out that more than half of female Leaving Certificate pupils are stressed out in sixth year compared with about a third of their male peers. This is not news! News, by definition, needs to be new. In fact, I am surprised the figures are so low. It is no secret that pupils undergoing terminal examinations undergo stress - they should be worried - these are important examinations that will very likely have an effect on their future career path. But the same is true of pupils sitting A-Levels, SAT's and even university exams (which I found personally far more stressful than the Leaving Cert). Stress is a universal effect of such examinations and, for many, it can serve to greatly improve study habits and exam performance. Teenagers get stressed for many more reasons other than their Leaving Cert too, and the ESRI study didn't clarify if the stress suffered by these teenagers was solely caused by the Leaving Cert.

But there is a more pressing question around this issue - should the Leaving Cert remain in its current format? The answer is plainly no. Over the last decade or more the Leaving Cert has evolved into a university entry system rather than a measure of the educational process in secondary schools. For this purpose the Leaving Cert succeeds - the CAO system is very fair, unbiased and non-judgemental - far more so than the UCAS system in the UK. The universities set the standards, the pupils apply anonymously and those that meet the standards (generally) get a place. Our university entry system is good and only requires tinkering - like increased use of aptitude tests and interviews. The "points system" is not the problem here. We need to change how the points are calculated not the entry system itself. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Counting the Cost of "Free" Education

I'm sure by now every pupil and teacher is getting slowly excited about the prospect of returning to school in a couple of weeks. The little ones are surely deciding which school bag to get - Ben 10 or Hannah Montana - and whether or not a new set of colouring pencils are required. Some are excited because maybe they'll have Mr. Jones for biology? Others will groan at the prospect! My fellow teachers are probably ordering their new mark books, purchasing new whiteboard markers, new shiny pens (blue, green and red of course) or maybe even a new laptop for those technically minded individuals! Some teachers may be deciding what to teach their new class groups in the first term while other will follow the "whatever worked for me last year" rule! Either way, there is a level of excitement about returning back to school, even if we don't really want to admit it!

But for Mammy and Daddy it is surely more of a stress. The Ben 10 or Hannah Montana back packs don't come cheap. Those new colouring pencils are a luxury, not a necessity, and the amount of copies the wee ones go through seems to increase exponentially every year. And then there are those horrid textbooks which can't be passed from kid number one to kid number two because in the three years between them, three more "new" editions have been released - each new edition costing €40 or so. For little Johnnie sitting ten subjects in his Junior Cert next June that €400! Oh, but don't forget the workbooks - he'll need those for his homework! Add another €50 to the bill! And damn puberty too - because little Johnnie isn't so frickin little any more! New trousers, new jumper, new white shirts, new tie (oh he lost it during the summer), new shoes and a year's supply of deodorant to last through September! All this adds up. By now Mammy and Daddy are wondering what exactly is "free education" because surely they have spent close to €1000 on each of the kids. Then comes the kick in the teeth - the school voluntary contribution. Bam, another €200 or so. In fact, a recent Bank of Ireland survey suggested that the annual cost of sending a secondary pupil to school over the entire year comes to nearly €13,000. Private fee paying boarding schools seem rather good value now don't they? 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Primary Schools Set for Change

An T├ínaiste and Minister for Education & Skills, Mary Coughlan, today announced that a number of church run primary schools across the country could soon be under state control. Currently, some 91% of Irish primary schools are currently under Catholic patronage, but this proportion looks likely to be reduced over the coming years after the government today published a list of potential schools which may be transferred to state control. Forty three areas around Ireland were mentioned today including major towns like Arklow, Athlone, Ballinasloe, Birr, Killarney, Tramore, Dublin 4, 6 and 8; Portmarnock, Malahide and Whitehall in Co. Dublin. Schools in these areas will now undergo a "consultation stage" which will see parents, teachers, church figures and the local community discuss the pros and cons of such a change. Senior Catholic figures have seemed to come out in support of the move. A statement of the Catholic Bishops read:
"In looking to the future the Church has made clear the commitment of Catholic communities throughout Ireland to providing denominational Catholic education to parents who desire such for their children. Catholic schools in Ireland are caring, inclusive communities, which offer quality in teaching and learning, and which have made, are still making, and will continue to make an outstanding contribution to society and Church in Ireland. However, the Catholic Church in Ireland does not see itself in the future as the sole or dominant provider of schools.
In fact, in 2007 the Irish Catholic Church formally detailed such a view on future provision at primary level in our document Catholic Primary Schools: A Policy for Provision into the Future. But of course the church is still very committed to providing a denominational service to those who want it and I can't imagine them moving too quickly on the matter - particularly without consultation with parents and community members.

There is no doubt the time for such change is here, with the social platform of Irish society shifting further away from Catholic teachings. With the success and popularity of Educate Together schools across the country, this is surely the beginning in a major shift in the Irish educational arena. Maybe this will also see the provision of Educate Together secondary schools in the not so distant future? 

Students Opt for Engineering and Science in Hope of Finding Work

Below is an article from today's Irish Independent by Katherine Donnelly, which explores how science and engineering courses have increased in popularity amongst this year's CAO applicants.

STUDENTS are choosing to study engineering, computing and science in ever- growing numbers as the fashionable careers of the boom years such as architecture and law lose some of their gloss, new figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal.

Even in a bumper year for college applications, three disciplines regarded as cornerstones for the so-called smart economy are outpacing other areas. Although these disciplines are recovering from a long spell in the doldrums and a very low base, it is a major step on the road to having enough skilled graduates for key industries such as green energy and mobile phone apps.

The trend has emerged in an analysis of this year's applications carried out by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). It follows widespread concerns expressed by major employers who highlighted a severe shortage of skilled graduates in these key areas of growth. This year, the CAO, the centralised college admissions service, is dealing with an all-time high of 77,126 applications, compared with 65,883 in 2007 before the downturn, when plenty of jobs were on offer.

But even within the record figures, the picture for engineering, computing and science is even more dramatic, with all of them capturing a greater share of first preferences than they did in 2007. School-leavers, as well as the rising number of mature students now seeking to go back to college to acquire new skills, are obviously heeding the advice of the Government and industry experts about where the jobs will be in the new economy.