Irish Leaving Certificate 2011: High failure rates in maths and science again
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Aug 17, 2011 - 6:07 AM

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Irish Leaving Certificate 2011: The results of this years Leaving Certificate Examination shows high failure rates in maths and science again this year.

From about 52,000 students who sat Leaving Certificate maths in 2011, just over 8,000 sat the higher-level paper. While 10% of students failed maths at ordinary level, a total of 4,367 students failed maths across all levels

Project Maths, which involves the introduction of revised syllabuses for both Junior and Leaving Certificate Mathematics, including changes to what students learn in mathematics, how they learn it and how they will be assessed, marginally increased the uptake of the honours paper in the 24 pilot schools - - only 16% took the subject at higher level, the same number who took the mainstream exam - - Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn accepted that more work is needed to increase these numbers. “I am hopeful that the continued roll-out of Project Maths and also the 25 bonus points which will be introduced for next year’s Leaving Cert students will improve these figures,” he said.

The top tier students achieved excellent results with the percentage of students gaining an A, B or C at higher level at a record level of 77% - - up from 64% in 1992, while 43% of students gained an A or B at higher level, up from 27% in 1992.

Grade inflation may be a factor but at the bottom, failure rates in physics were 8%:  chemistry 9%; biology 8%; business 7% and accounting 6%.

Two of my father's sayings come to mind: a) you cannot make a racehorse out of a mule b) you can take the horse to the water but you cannot make it drink.

It is however true that teaching can be a very important factor.

I was introduced to Euclid by a good teacher in primary school but I took an honours level paper in the Leaving Cert, without hearing of Pythagoras or Fibonacci.

Prof Marcus du Sautoy of Oxford University showed in the stunningly impressive BBC series The Story of Maths - The Language of the Universe, how putting in the context of the development of civilisation, ostensibly dry concepts delivered by a bored teacher, can be vividly brought to life.

Over 64% of Leaving Certificate maths students said they would like class numbers halved to help them cope with the challenges of the subject, according to a survey by Engineers Ireland.  The findings were revealed ahead of the official Leaving Certificate results.

In a survey of 180 maths students by Engineers Ireland who sat the Leaving Certificate this year, 81% said their maths teachers need to give them more practical, every-day applications for maths to aid learning. 55% said they felt their maths teachers needed extra training to teach the subject and over 46% of maths students said they needed grinds outside the classroom.

IBEC, the business group said major reform of the Leaving Cert system is needed following yet another disappointing set of maths and science results. The group said ongoing plans to reform second-level maths curriculum must be adequately funded and receive the full support of the education system to ensure students develop the necessary skills to work in high tech sectors.

IBEC head of education policy Tony Donohoe said: “Maths fluency is vitally important to the educational and economic well-being of the country. Maths concepts and techniques are central to working in high tech industries, which continue to perform strongly and create jobs.

“Less than 16% of the 51,991 students that sat leaving certificate maths took the higher level paper. This is down from a high of 18.9% in 2005 and is significantly out of line with other subjects. By not sitting the honours paper, most students have automatically excluded themselves from many science, engineering and technology third-level courses.

“The roll out of Project Maths is a step in the right direction. However, teaching quality is a critical issue. Exam results from the 24 pilot schools show that top grades are not easily achieved and the new syllabus is challenging and credible. As this is rolled out to all schools, teachers must be given the tools to teach the curriculum in a way that promotes real understanding, practical problem solving and the relevance of maths to everyday life.

“IBEC believes the Leaving Certificate and points system need major reform. Business needs an education system that produces individuals who are adaptable, can think for themselves and have an appetite to learn. The current system fails to produce these skills.

“Business wants to see young people equipped with the education necessary to have rewarding careers and fulfilled lives. Assessment is an integral part of the learning process and we need to make sure that there are robust and appropriate processes for gathering evidence of different types of learning. However, the current system tends to stifle learning and innovation, and reward recall and rote learning at the expense of real understanding.

“At this juncture, the Leaving Certificate results, and the intense activity that accompanies their publication, might appear to mark the defining moment in these young people’s lives. But they should remember that, whatever their results, a wide variety of opportunities are now available in higher and further education and training if they are adaptable and willing to learn.

“The Leaving Certificate can be a catalyst for a fulfilled and rewarding life, but only if it has created a desire for further learning. Unfortunately the current system is over-reliant on rote learning and may be having the opposite effect for a significant number of students,” concluded Donohoe.

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