Revolutionary maths project imperilled by tight resources

LEAVING Certificate examiners are already marking the answer books of 1,800 students who sat the first papers last month in a revolutionary method of teaching maths.

Policy makers are talking up the way Project Maths will bring an unseen level of interest in the subject among teenagers, with a plan to double the proportion of school-leavers taking higher-level maths in the Leaving Certificate from the record low of about one-in-six of recent years.

But the revelation that efforts to improve access in primary schools to support for children who have real difficulties have been less than successful should provide a sharp reality bite for those who think all will soon be fixed in terms of future generations’ interests in all things mathematical.

When the general allocation model was first announced in 2003 by then education minister Noel Dempsey, it was lauded as a quick-fix to long-standing problems for schools getting staff to help slow learners in literacy and numeracy.

Rather than wait anything up to two years to be sanctioned for learning support or the help of a resource teacher, pupils with learning difficulties would be entitled to help automatically as every school would be allocated set special needs staff, whose numbers depend on the size of the school. While a great idea in principle and welcomed by parents and teachers initially, the research, by an expert in special education – Dr Joseph Travers of St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra – shows clearly that the best-laid plans do not always bear fruit.

Although there have been many positive experiences of the revised staffing arrangements, children in disadvantaged areas are losing out on the kind of maths assistance they require when it compares with pupils in other schools.

Despite the better staffing allocations given to those schools in poorer areas, they are still struggling to meet the needs of children. The evidence suggests this may partially be down to a tendency to prioritise learning support in literacy over numeracy when resources are tight, as schools are being forced to make tough decisions.

But their job is being made even more difficult by the fact that staffing levels have not reflected growing pupil numbers, meaning schools must provide support teaching for more children with the same level of staff. Either that, or they are forced to restrict some pupils from receiving the help they are entitled to in order to ensure those with the strongest need get as much assistance as possible.

This all means that all primary pupils who need literacy and numeracy support are not getting as much as they are entitled to – if anything at all.

With one-third of pupils in disadvantaged schools shown to have serious literacy difficulties, it is unclear if there is much scope for improving that statistic without resources for schools to match their needs. The same applies to maths, with little likelihood that thousands of children will ever be able for higher-level maths in the Junior Certificate, never mind the Leaving Certificate, if they are entering second-level education without having received the full teaching support they need.

There are obvious cost implications for matching up the staffing levels to primary pupil numbers – but simple maths tells you that in order to gain interest, you have to first make an investment.

If Project Maths is to work, some of that investment will surely be needed much earlier than when students enter second-level education.


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