Problems with maths


Sir, – About 12 years ago, when I was course director of Trinity College Dublin’s management science and information systems studies (MSISS) degree, I was approached by three final-year students who were interested in becoming maths teachers. All three were gifted young women, each of whom had attained an A1 in honours mathematics in the Leaving Certificate; all three were destined to get first-class honours degrees in what was (and remains) a challenging programme; all three wanted to become teachers. Would, they asked, an MSISS degree qualify them to teach Leaving Certificate honours mathematics?

I did not know the answer to that question so I wrote to the Department of Education and inquired. The department replied, asking me to forward the curriculum and syllabus, which I duly did. I pointed out that the girls had done the same mathematics course as engineers for their first two years, and in addition had done a number of modules in computing, management science, statistics and probability, all of which involved using a lot of maths.

I was stunned (as were the students) when, a few weeks later, I received a reply from the department saying that not only would they be unqualified to teach mathematics at Leaving Certificate higher level, they would not even be allowed to teach mathematics at Junior Certificate pass level.

Incredulous, I wrote to the minister at the time, Mary Hanafin, asking whether the country was so flush with talented maths teachers that it could afford to turn away young people of this calibre. I never received a reply.

Mathematics is hard, but you do not need an honours degree in the subject to teach it effectively at secondary level. What you do need is a thorough grasp of mathematics at that level and maybe a bit beyond, a deep understanding of the difficulties in learning this most challenging of subjects and, of course, the ability to teach.

Solving the so-called maths crisis requires a multifaceted approach. Dumbing down the curriculum, extra points, rote learning and teaching to the test might boost the headline statistics; it will do little else as is now becoming manifestly clear. On the other hand, attracting, recruiting and retaining great maths teachers (of all ages and genders) is fundamental to developing the mathematical skills of young people.

Fifty years ago I was lucky to have one such great teacher – the legendary Jackie Campbell. Maybe those three young women, all no doubt now highly successful in other careers, might have been great mathematics teachers too. Alas we will never know. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 4.