With more students (28%) taking higher-level maths, nearly 5% of them, or around 700 people, failed. That is more than double the failure rate of four years ago, and has been linked to students attempting higher level because of the awarding of 25 bonus college entry points for passing since 2012.
Among ordinary-level students, almost 3,000 (9.2%) failed maths — up from 5.9% a year ago.
Mr Bruton said he is concerned at the high failure rates but he did welcome another rise in the numbers doing higher level. The 15,200 who did so this year is up from 8,235 in 2011, with numbers rising constantly since bonus points were introduced to the Central Applications Office system.
“The policy is successful as we have seen many more people going for the higher level,” he said. “The reason why at ordinary level people aren’t performing, part of it [is that] some of those who would have done ordinary level are now doing the higher level, so that does have an impact.
“But I would be concerned. I know the chief examiner looked at this and there does seem to be problems in areas like trigonometry and algebra.”
Earlier this year, the State Examinations Commission chief examiner said the sharp rise in numbers taking higher level was due to bonus points and the reformed Project Maths syllabus. He said the syllabus expectations are ambitious at all levels, and students find it difficult to master the higher-order thinking skills emphasised in the new course.
National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals director Clive Byrne said some review of teaching and learning of maths might be necessary, notwithstanding some of the positive outcomes of Project Maths.
“People are making the jump to higher level because of the additional 25 points and that’s having a carry-on effect,” he said. “People who would have happily settled for an A at ordinary level have gone up to higher level.
“But there is also the group who are taking ordinary level rather than foundation level. My belief is that students should study at whatever level they can achieve in.”
While industry groups such as Ibec and science and engineering organisations welcomed the uptake increases in higher-level maths and sciences, Mr Byrne urged caution.
“If the rising tide isn’t lifting all boats and if maths skills at ordinary level are unacceptable, we will need to look at ways to see the type of syllabi students are offered,” he said.
Mr Byrne said Ireland is one of the few countries where maths is a compulsory subject for school-leavers to be examined in.
“If everything is to rely on one exam, it’s the risk that people take. I would be keen to look at different ways of teaching and learning,” he said.
“We need to convince the people of Ireland that the world won’t end if their children are assessed by more than one external assessment. That’s why we’re in favour of junior cycle reform, because until it’s embedded in junior cycle, it won’t happen at senior cycle.”
Bob Savage, head of IT at data multinational EMC and former chairman of Cork Institute of Technology,
said: “The increase in those opting for STEM subjects and the results achieved is encouraging and hugely beneficial as Ireland’s information technology sector — a high-growth sector in our economy — continues to grow and attract inward investment. However, we need to be mindful of the rise in failure rates in ordinary maths and work to ensure this trend does not continue.”