CAO points scramble strategy doesn’t add up

There are a raft of proposals about the points system, but changes will take time to implement, reports Education Correspondent Niall Murray

A JUMP in numbers of young people willing to have a go at higher level maths in this summer’s Leaving Certificate is being understandably welcomed. But it is also a signal of the problems with our college entry system and the emphasis it places on schools and students around exam preparation rather than learning.

It is just a few months since details emerged of a raft of proposals about the way the points system is operated on behalf of the 30-plus colleges funded through the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and the HEA made rapid progress on Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s request last autumn to come up with radical ideas to change the modus operandi.

Most people involved in second level education agree it puts the pressure on teachers to ensure students maximise their grades, but at the expense of focus on necessarily understanding their subjects or developing independent or creative thinking skills.

Among the recommendations now being further developed are the removal of sub-divided grades into, for example, B1, B2 and B3, so there is less pressure to sweat for every single mark in the Leaving Certificate exams and the related Central Applications Office (CAO) points.

Also under consideration are changes to the entry level higher education courses, the idea being that a student might spend their first year learning general principles of their discipline, rather than choosing a very specific degree before ever passing through the college gates.

If any evidence were needed of the disproportionate impact of the points system and the scramble for limited places on many of the 1,300 courses offered through the CAO, then the figures on higher level maths entry should satisfy it.

The fact that colleges will give students with higher level Leaving Certificate maths grades an additional 25 CAO points is the most logical explanation of the jump from one-in-five to one-in-four being pencilled in to take the honours papers. While the numbers who subsequently sit higher level maths in June will inevitably be less, it is nonetheless a clear indicator that the points system is the tail that wags the dog of our second level education sector.

Minister of State for Research and Innovation Sean Sherlock says this and recent CAO applicant statistics suggest it is not just a reflection of the bonus points offering, but also of young people being more responsive to industry needs and knowledge of where future employment prospects lie. He has been tasked by his senior colleague Mr Quinn with overseeing Government efforts to improve student interest in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

But the Irish Examiner also reported earlier this week that a series of courses aimed at improving the teaching ability of those taking maths classes at second level will not now start until next September. That will be a year after they were announced by Mr Sherlock, who also revealed Teaching Council survey results suggesting up to 2,000 — or almost one-third — of those teaching maths do not have it as a major subject in their degrees.

As the minister charged with increasing student uptake and performance in maths and science, his job is a tough one. But it appears like things are off to a slow start, particularly given that the planned postgraduate courses were under consideration by the Department of Education long before the announcement six months ago.

“We have always said that this ship is going to take some time to turn around. But work is ongoing between myself and Brian MacCraith [president of Dublin City University] to put together an advisory group on the STEM subjects,” Mr Sherlock said.

He said its purpose will be to act autonomously from the department and will make short-term and longer-term recommendations in relation to the challenges around these subjects.

“The charge could be levelled that it only becomes another talking shop. but in a time of economic crisis, if someone of the stature of Brian MacCraith is going to lead that process, it’s on a proviso that we can provide at least some of the resources,” the minister said.

“The important thing is for us [in government] is that after our five-year mandate ends, we leave a legacy that ensures there is a much greater degree of confidence in educational attainment in relation to STEM subjects,” he said.

“The key challenge is to ensure there is a qualitative effort in how students learning science and maths subjects. The imminent awarding of the tender for postgraduate maths courses is another piece in the jigsaw,” said Mr Sherlock.

But there has been little enough increase in the budget for professional development among teachers, which should be a key factor in upskilling all 60,000 at primary and second level who will have role to play in the Government’s drive to raise literacy and numeracy levels.

There have also been criticisms that the capping of pay allowances for those who spend their own time and money undertaking postgraduate studies.

A challenge for the Department of Education will be to see how much of the necessary professional development can be achieved without expectation among teachers of additional pay. Or how the necessary training in new curricula might be provided, for example, through some of the additional hours promised by their unions under the Croke Park agreement, which is likely to come under closer scrutiny over the coming months.

It is, indeed, encouraging to see a peak in the numbers setting their sights on higher level maths papers in this summer’s Leaving Certificate.

But it will be the exam results in August and the subsequent progress of those students who go on to third level studies in the science and engineering areas that provide the real measure of success in turning around a ship that, despite a loud-revving engine, may still be anchored in shallow waters.


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