New Year, Same Argument: Standards in Science & Maths

Last year I wrote a piece on More Stress Less Success arguing the case for the supposedly poor standards in maths and science in this country and specifically in the leaving certificate. I feel it important to reiterate some of the points made in that post (and some new ones) as the issues seems to reoccur every year and I feel it is unfairly represented in the media - especially in print. 

The Leaving Certificate is a deliberately broad curriculum requiring candidates to study at least six subjects over a two year period. Most study seven while some study eight. This broad curriculum does not suit most individuals and is the exception rather than rule when compared to most other European countries - who generally adopt a more focused curriculum in the senior cycle - for example UK students study a minimum of three subjects at A Levels. This all means that the average leaving cert pupil will spend approximately 45 minutes with each subject per day - five or six lesson periods per week per subject including subjects like maths, physics or chemistry. This simply isn't enough time to reach the standards that we set for ourselves. We need to allocate more class contact time with pupils for all subjects if we are to meet our own high expectations. To do this we need to either increase the school day (Ireland already has one of the longest schools days in Europe) or reduce the number of subjects required at leaving certificate. For me, the latter is the most obvious for a number of reasons. At the moment leaving cert students are seen to make their subject choices based on which subjects are easiest to obtain good grades in - besides aptitude and interest. Reducing the number of subject taught at leaving cert would mean a more focused approach could be taken in the subjects, more class contact time given to each subject, more time for exploring the practical applications of subjects like maths and science in these classes and less pupils picking subjects that they neither have an aptitude for or an interest in. This would also allow the students with a strong aptitude in science and maths to focus on these subjects without having to study subjects that they have no interest or aptitude in.

In Ireland, mathematics is a compulsory subject at leaving certificate. To compare the performance of every Irish student in mathematics to students in other European countries is simply unfair. In the UK, only 30% of A Level students study mathematics this year. While on paper the standards they achieve is very high (around 44% achieve A*'s or A's annually) the A Level system has been undergoing dramatic grade inflation over the past decade. They also have more class contact time due to their more focused curriculum. It must also be remembered that an A grade in Ireland is awarded for scores over 85% while in the UK it's 70%. Granted, there is a high failure rate in maths in Ireland but if the subject was optional these students would choose subjects more suited to their aptitudes.

In Ireland, over 50% of leaving cert students choose a science in their senior cycle. When compared to the UK the figure is around 17%). This figure is mainly down to the numbers of students studying biology while the percentage of students studying chemistry and physics in Ireland is slightly lower than our nearest neighbours. This all comes down to the so called "points race". Students choose seven or eight subjects which they feel will allow them get the most points. Chemistry and physics are known as more difficult subjects so less students choose to study them. The high numbers in biology are down to students requiring at least six subjects and to "keeping their options open" in terms of university choice (it is also perceived as an easy option). Neither outcome is favourable. We have students capable (and possibly interested) in studying physics and chemistry but choosing not to because of the points system. We have students choosing biology who have neither the interest nor aptitude. We need radical reform of the points system to remove these negative outcomes and encourage more students to study the sciences for the right reasons. 

We also need to remove the leaving cert's dependence on the terminal exam. These exams are good are assessing rote learning or the ability to learn off definitions and formulas. They are limited at determining the candidates ability to problem solve or adopt scientific knowledge to practical problems. This is what science is about - it's a process not a collection of facts and figures. At the moments we are in a system which rewards rote learning and memorising facts. We want to teach students to ask questions not answer them. This will mean a change in how we assess our students and will require some form of continuous assessment. The ASTI don't like that word but teachers and their unions need to take as much responsibility for educational reform as politicians should. No longer can we see ourselves as pawns in the process - we are part of the system and the ones best positioned to offer advice and suggestions for our system's urgent reform.

Finally, I can plead to the Irish media adopt just one stance on this issue. Either complain about grade inflation in the leaving cert or poor standards. You can't have it both ways. To say in one article that the number of pupils achieving A's is rising and this needs to be addressed and in another criticise teachers and the DES for poor standards simply won't cut it. Make up your mind on what you want to report on.

So, to conclude, we need to:
  • Remove the points system as it currently stands and radically reform how students are chosen for university entry.
  • Reduce the number of subjects studied for the leaving certificate to four.
  • Make maths optional allowing the syllabus to expand.
  • Make our assessment procedures less exam focused.
  • Teachers need to take responsibility for educational reform too and become more proactive in this regard.

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