Will Goodbody reports

Today is a big important day in the lives of Leaving Cert students around the country. 

For many, the results they received this morning will set them on a course and help shape the rest of their lives. Others will face hard choices and a re-evaluation of what it is they intend do next. Whatever they have achieved, they must all be congratulated and supported as they choose the path ahead.

But today is an important day too for many others. For those who work in the area of educational policy, curriculum design, scientific research, commercial IT and more, the achievements of the class of 2013 in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects will be keenly analysed. For many of the 56,000 students who venture out into the world today could be the key scientific and technological leaders of tomorrow.

So what do the results show? Well, let’s start with the good news.

In Maths, the number of students taking higher level is up considerably. In response to the introduction of 25 bonus points for opting for the higher paper, the numbers taking it have increased dramatically, up 58 per cent over the past two years. This year alone, 1,883 pupils or 17% transferred up to the higher level syllabus. Unequivocally, that is to be welcomed.

Drill down a bit deeper though, and the picture isn’t quite so rosy. The numbers achieving an honour in higher level Maths is down more than 10%. The failure rate rose slightly from 2.3% last year to 3.4% this year. The obvious implication is that a significant proportion of the 2,000 extra students who took the higher level paper this year were borderline A or B Ordinary level students. Some of them were capable of achieving a pass or low honour at higher level, others were clearly not.

The Department of Education says this is to be expected, and is predictably focusing more on the positive numbers taking the Higher paper and the 96% pass rate. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment agrees and says those who took the Higher paper and passed will be better placed for third level courses that have a maths component. However, the Irish Maths Teachers Association (IMTA) cautions that in future, students will have to listen more carefully to the advice of their teachers when it comes to choosing the level they sit.

Then there is the question of the success or otherwise of Project Maths – the new syllabus designed to teach students maths through real world applications. This year a large portion of the questions, but not all, were Project Maths based. Next year will be the first year where the entire exam is based on the new system.

The IMTA says the new syllabus is still bedding down and teachers who have been teaching the old curriculum for 25 or 30 years need a little more time to adjust. Because of the introduction of bonus points for Higher level maths, it isn’t entirely clear what effect Project Maths alone is having. It may be partly responsible for more students taking the higher paper. But what is clear is that at Ordinary level a large proportion are still struggling. Almost 10% failed the ordinary level paper, which is high in the context of a subject that is so fundamental to success in so many careers.

According to the NCCA, now that the updating of the Maths curriculum is coming to an end, the challenge for the future is to support the students who are struggling with the subject. That starts at primary level, the NCCA says. Maths teachers, on the other hand, will inevitably point to the ever growing scarcity of resources in the classroom and devoted to in-service training.

In many ways, the lessons learned from the Maths experience, could and should be applied to the Sciences. The positive news this year is that more students took Science subjects and demand for college Science courses remains high. But so too is the failure rate at both higher and ordinary level in the sciences. 8.1% failed higher level Chemistry, and a whopping 18.2% failed ordinary. 7% failed higher level Physics and 9.3% the ordinary level paper. 8% failed the Biology higher level paper, and 13% the ordinary. The gender gap also remains apparent in certain science subjects, like Physics where boys outnumber girls by more than 3:1.

The NCCA says the increased number of students taking science subjects is a reflection of the work done across government to encourage students into these courses. But it admits that while the attitude towards the sciences has improved, like in Maths the challenge now is to support the students who are taking the subjects. In that regard, there are changes promised in the science curricula, which the NCCA says will modernise them and make them more attractive.

The “Eureka” moment in Irish STEM education has not yet been reached. But perhaps today we are one step closer.