Wednesday, 11 July 2012
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me the opportunity to raise this issue. I have a particular interest in the issues of competency in mathematics and the need to address the teaching of mathematics and the attainments of students in their examinations. Last week the National Competitiveness Council circulated a paper by Mr. Seán McDonagh and Mr. Tony Quinlan which examined the teaching of mathematics in schools and student achievements. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was interviewed about the report on radio and proceeded to explain his views. I am keen to raise the matter here and hold a discussion on it.
We frequently say mathematics is very important, but, in fact, it drives economic growth. The report refers to a recent OECD study highlighting the direct link between student performance in cognitive tests and the GDP growth of a country. This shows the importance of mathematical achievement and mathematical literacy. It is a building block for a vibrant economy and underpins other disciplines, including science, technology, business and finance. The availability of mathematical skills in the economy is a major determinant of Ireland's ability to attract foreign direct investment and we all know the consequent value to the economy. Mathematical skills are essential for a modern society, especially given the growth of the digital society and the extent of information and communications technology throughout all sectors of society. Adequacy in mathematics is becoming more and more important.
I recognise that there is a national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy and that changes have taken place, including the development of project maths. Several useful conclusions and recommendations are contained in the report and these are worth considering, especially those relating to the level of teacher training. I realise that we have in place a system of professional development for teachers. Nevertheless, we could make changes to the level of entry for teachers to training schools. It has been suggested a teacher should have an honours mathematics degree as well as an honours English degree.
Let us compare our students who are taking the leaving certificate examination with their competitors elsewhere. One table in the report compares the United Kingdom with Ireland and other countries. Mathematics at leaving certificate level is well down the list for this country for male and female students, whereas in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom it is among the top five subjects. These are our competitors when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment. A great deal more needs to be done. The report recommends altering the points in the allocation of third level courses and that if mathematics is a requirement of a given course, a student must obtain a certain number of points, especially in mathematics. These are small but meaningful changes, especially in the area of teacher training. The quality of our teachers should be examined also and this was the main point that emerged from the report. The fact that the National Competitiveness Council has raised the issue again is significant, although it continually raises it in its annual reports. On this occasion the council decided to make a one-issue statement on the subject.
This is an important issue for us. I recognise that languages, including English and Irish, are important, but we need to improve competency in mathematics, make a strong statement that we are concerned about numeracy attainment among students and indicate that we recognise it as important for future economic growth.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Senator for raising it. My Department has received the discussion document from the National Competitiveness Council entitled, Maths and National Competitiveness. It is a helpful input into the debate on the role of numeracy and, in particular, mathematics in primary and post-primary education.
I welcome the introduction to the discussion document. It highlights many of the initiatives under way to improve the quality of teaching and learning to ensure the outcomes for students in this curricular area continue to improve in the coming years. The introduction sets the context for the rest of the document. The initiatives include the publication of the national literacy and numeracy strategy last year, the introduction of project maths in post-primary schools, the prioritisation of continuing professional development for mathematics teachers, the funding by my Department of a postgraduate diploma in mathematics to upskill out-of-field mathematics teachers and the request to schools for greater amounts of time for the teaching of mathematics at primary and post-primary levels.
I welcome the provision of 25 bonus points by the higher education institutions for leaving certificate students who achieve a grade D3 or higher in higher level mathematics. This measure is probably the key reason for a 25% increase in the number of students who indicated that they would sit the higher level mathematics paper last month.
Initial teacher education will increase from three years to four from this September at primary level and from one year to two years at second level. In addition, the Teaching Council will be consulting on the minimum entry requirements for teacher education. There is a proposal that the entry requirements for teacher training colleges relating to leaving certificate mathematics should be a good deal higher than they are.
The discussion document is one of many the Department has received relating to mathematics in the primary and post-primary curriculum. It notes the concerns the Government has expressed on many occasions. My Department will continue to prioritise literacy and numeracy in the primary and post-primary sectors. I agree with view expressed by the National Competitiveness Council in the introduction to the document which states, "Mathematical skills are essential for enabling people to fully participate and work in a modern society". The main points raised in the document are being and will be addressed during the lifetime of the Government.
Bonus points are available for mathematics this year and it will be interesting to see the progress made and the results achieved. The Minister has an open mind on this issue and nothing is set in stone. This is no ordinary document; it is from the National Competitiveness Council and we should take it seriously.
As I stated, the Department receives many representations from many people involved in civic society who have expressed their concern that for Ireland to remain competitive at a global level, our mathematical achievements should be closely monitored. We have not exactly covered ourselves in glory in the recent past and the Minister is keen to address the issue. When we see the evolution of new methods of teaching mathematics and an improvement in teachers' skills in imparting mathematical knowledge, we will see a vast improvement in a short timeframe.