Maths simply fails to add up for third-level students

Substantial minority reliant on supports to succeed, says chairman of review group

Students at third level are increasingly unable to cope with courses which require competence in maths and require extra support in order to pass their exams, according to the chair of Government education review group.

Prof Brian MacCraith said there were frequently-voiced concerns among lecturers over the ability of first-year students in courses such as science, technology, engineering and maths.

He said a considerable minority of students were now reliant on learning supports in order to succeed at third level.

The rising number in need of support is likely to raise fresh questions over the merits of the new Leaving Cert maths syllabus, “project Maths”.


While numbers completing the revised subject at higher level have climbed significantly, critics say it has been at the expense of “dumbing down” the curriculum.

Prof MacCraith is chair of a review group which has been tasked with advising the Government on how to improve the quality of education in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

It recently submitted its report to the Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan and it is due to be published shortly.

Policy-makers say improving the quality and quantity of graduates in these areas is crucial if Ireland is to compete globally for jobs and investment.

Prof MacCraith made his comments in the new edition of Education Matters Yearbook, edited by Irish Times careers expert Brian Mooney, launched last night.

He said Ireland’s performance in maths has been consistently average, while it has hovered just above average in science.

Primary and post-primary students find problem-solving in areas like maths and science particularly difficult.

There were relatively few students performing at an advanced level in maths, he said, while reports also indicated there was a low level of technology and computer use at primary level.

In areas where computers were used, they tended to be for “low-level” activities such as word processing, internet searches and computer games.

The use of teachers in secondary schools without qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths to delivering the curriculum was also a matter of concern.


A significant problem with “out of field” maths teachers had been addressed over recent years, he said, and similar initiatives were now needed in biology, physics and chemistry.

Prof MacCraith said quality tuition of these subjects was vital to drive our economic ambitions and provide the foundations for future prosperity.

“Knowledge-based economies, such as Ireland’s are dependent on the quality and quantity of graduates in these fields,” he said.

Despite this, he said Ireland did not have an education policy focused on Stem subjects.

A failure to develop an effective one, he said, could give rise to serious concerns that Ireland might lose economic competitiveness and fail to realise its potential as a nation.

On a positive level, he said there was an impressive informal work being done to promote Stem education through initiatives such as the BT Young Scientist and Coderdojo coding projects.

But there were concerns that the benefits and potential of this kind of work was not being fully realised as they did not form part of formal school assessment or the curriculum.

Prof MacCraith also said girls faced particular barriers to progressing in Stem subjects and faced negative stereotypes that careers in the sector were more suitable for boys.

In addition, parents often lacked information on career choices, while there was fragmented access to this information.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent