Thursday, 21 June 1990
Dáil Éireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy O'Shea gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the leaving certificate examination paper. He has ten minutes to present his case and the Minister has five minutes to reply.
The need for the introduction of a second ordinary mathematics syllabus for the leaving certificate is an extremely urgent issue which needs to be resolved in good time for the resumption of second level schools in September. The facts relating to the students who did not succeed in obtaining a grade D on the ordinary mathematics leaving certificate paper last year underlines the problem; 47,000 students sat the leaving certificate examination in 1989 and 10,500 of them did not succeed in obtaining a grade D. We must balance this against the 7,000 students who took the higher mathematics paper and we must further balance it against the 2,000 students who did not succeed in obtaining a grade D in the English paper.
The stark reality is that the number  of students who do not succeed at mathematics is greater than the number who take a great many other subjects. The student who does not get a pass in mathematics in the leaving certificate will be excluded from many career opportunities, including nursing. Obviously, these figures describe a situation in which something is radically wrong. I know from a previous debate in the House that the Minister is also concerned about this and has been very active in trying to resolve it.
The level of failure at mathematics in the intermediate certificate has been a source of great concern in education circles for many years. During the eighties the failure rate improved from 30 per cent to closer to 20 per cent, which is welcome progress, but it is still not enough. In fairness, I should say that the three-tier syllabus introduced by the Minister has gone a good way towards redressing the problem and I am confident that the situation will have very much improved at the end of the junior cycle.
This is welcome progress but there is still a fundamental problem at senior cycle mathematics which needs to be urgently addressed. I contend that the ordinary mathematics course in the leaving certificate is conceptual by nature and will prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, for students who were not successful at junior level. Indeed, this applies to the new junior certificate syllabus C and to the many students who succeed at it. The solution regarding a C syllabus in ordinary mathematics at senior certificate level is not a desirable solution.
The reason I say that is that a leaving certificate would still not contain a pass in mathematics. That is the kernel of the problem. As I said earlier, it restricts career opportunities. In a technological age, particularly in terms of clerical work, of which word processors and computers have become a large part of the scene, some one presenting himself or herself  for interview for a job showing no pass in mathematics on their leaving certificate would tend to undermine the confidence of prospective employers in such a young person.
I put strongly to the Minister the recommendation that the Mathematics Course Committee of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is the appropriate body to deal with this matter. The recommendation is that a second ordinary syllabus of similar standard but of more practical content be introduced. All the indications are that this syllabus will be approved by the third level institutions.
When I raised this matter in the House previously the Minister, quite rightly, pointed out that access to third level is not the major issue but rather access of young students into the employment market. I agree with her on that point. This is the kernel: that students who have not got mathematics on their leaving certificate will not have as broad a base as they might if they could succeed on a second syllabus B, on a second ordinary syllabus — an examination of similar standard to what obtains at present, at the same time having a more practical content to serve people who have not mastered mathematics concepts by the end of junior cycle. At that stage, it is very difficult to absorb concepts, particularly bearing in mind the pressures prevailing in senior cycle. I know the Minister is concerned also in regard to whether a new syllabus would withstand international scrutiny. One such as that recommended by the Mathematics Course Committee of the NCCA would withstand such international scrutiny.
I am sure the Minister will join me in hoping that the number of students who will obtain grade D or better in the ordinary mathematics course, from the 53,000 who sat the leaving certificate recently, will show a marked improvement on recent years.
 In conclusion I earnestly request the Minister to implement the new, ordinary syllabus at leaving certificate, of similar standard but of a more practical content, immediately in preparation for the new academic year. The position has obtained for too long. I know the Minister has addressed herself to it, that it has been the subject of correspondence and discussions between her and the NCCA. I very much hope the Minister will accept the recommendation to which I have referred and, in that way, do a great service to many students who will come through our educational system in future years.
Minister for Education (Mrs. O'Rourke): I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle and Deputy O'Shea, the Labour Party spokesman on education, for having given us the opportunity to discuss this matter this afternoon. There is much common sense in what Deputy O'Shea said. I share his concern that the correct solution be arrived at. Where we might differ is how we arrive at that correct solution. There is much concern and common sense in the way he put forward his case. If you like, this is mark II of an earlier debate which took place here at Question Time some weeks ago.
If I might sketch the background to this matter; as we all know, in two years time the junior certificate will replace the intermediate and group certificates. There are seven new syllabi in the schools. These have been more or less accepted and would appear to be proceeding satisfactorily. The mathematics syllabus jumped ahead because of enormous contradictions within the mathematics arena which meant that mathematics were attended to first. I know Deputy O'Shea is aware of this but I want to make the point for the record. This year — on the soon to be old intermediate certificate — students sat for the three syllabi, the three separate examinations.The concern of Deputy O'Shea  and of many others henceforth is what will happen those young people who will be advancing from the intermediate certificate going on into fifth and sixth year, fourth and fifth year, who will be carrying with them the seeming advantage of having the three gradings. The difficulty would never have occurred had all of the syllabi moved together. We find now that mathematics needs to be addressed at senior cycle apart from consideration of the overall senior cycle syllabus, which examination is at present underway.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment — I might praise that body, the course committee and teachers who sit on it — dealt very well with the junior certificate. Having completed that task so quickly and efficiently they are now moving to consideration of all of the subjects in the senior cycle, which we hope will bring about great curricular change. Because mathematics went ahead — rightly so because that was necessary — that subject now falls to be examined ahead of the consideration of the other syllabi. The NCCA and all of the course committees are going to revamp, reorganise and radically rethink the senior cycle syllabi for all subjects as they did in respect of the junior cycle.
I share the concern of Deputy O'Shea with regard to the lack of what might appear to be a relevant practical content and the questions asked of what might be termed to be young people who failed to achieve a pass in mathematics. Of course we all recognise that we can never have circumstances in which everybody would pass in everything; there is a need for maintaining standards, which is a balancing component of this whole question. We need to ensure that the education our children receive is not merely relevant and practical but is of a particular standard to withstand the test here, in Europe or elsewhere in the world and recognised for what it is. All of those pieces of the jigsaw have to be put together. For  example, there is entry to third level; some institutions accept senior certificates; some do not. Then there is the need to equip people for life rather than for entry to university. I certainly share Deputy O'Shea's sentiment that any young person presenting himself or herself to a training agency, for apprenticeship to anything or going for an interview for a job and having an interviewer look at his or her examination sheet without seeing at least a grade D in mathematics would constitute a very big deterrent to that person being recruited. Mathematics has acquired that cachet— that one must at least achieve a pass if one is to prove oneself.
Deputy O'Shea quoted a figure of approximately 10,000 students who had not achieved a grade D in the ordinary mathematics paper in last year's leaving certificate examination. That is the issue we want to put right for young people now going into year one of their post-intermediate certificate cycle. The senior certificate would cater for a certain number of those students, which is recognised by all educationalists. Then there remains the group who fail to be addressed within the context of the ordinary level B cycle. There are several ways we can tackle this. The leaving certificate and the changes in the syllabi in that respect is to be addressed now. I hope that when the course committee get down to considering that broader issue they will look at the content, composition and type of questions asked.
I strongly hold the view that more and more examinations should be about drawing out whatever knowledge a child may have rather than, in a punitive way, ascertaining what a child may not know. Examinations should be of a much more exploratory type, enabling students, through knowledge gained, to express what they know. The course committee have recommended that there be four syllabi, that a senior certificate should remain in place; that there be honours leaving certificate mathematics; an ordinary  level A, or level I and ordinary level B, or level II whatever it may be called. Therefore, there would be four types of examination in mathematics for students at leaving certificate level. That seems to me to be excessive.
I propose to address the immediate problem, bearing in mind that the NCCA document furnished to me was very exploratory, posing different options I might choose; they did not rule out anything.Be that as it may, there is a need to address the issue urgently in time for September next, as Deputy O'Shea said, when these people will go on into senior cycle. I shall ask the NCCA to convene urgently a meeting of the Mathematics Course Committee. In fact I would like to meet that committee myself. I have not done so yet. The House will be aware that I leave the NCCA to undertake their task; they furnish me with their proposals; they act in an advisory capacity to the Minister and the Department.I have very strong ideas as to how we might address the issue — including perhaps an interim arrangement for a two-year cycle, whereby students now going in will be given the chance, on one paper, to have a mix of A and B, of I and II, one part of which would be compulsory and the other optional. That is one idea I have, as an interim arrangement for one cycle only, pending a total review of the syllabi now being carried out by the Mathematics Course Committee. That would be one idea worth pursuing to ascertain whether it would be workable.Therefore I will ask the NCCA to meet me and then meet the Mathematics Course Committee to examine that syllabus in order to meet the requirements of the ordinary level, within two components of that paper, geared to the two types of students to whom Deputy O'Shea referred. We could consider this and perhaps other options they might advance. That would constitute a better alternative, a middle way, rather than have four papers, have two components on the one paper with an option or choice.I will then put to them very strongly  that this might constitute an interim measure for the one cycle so that, by the time young people emerge next year having sat intermediate certificate mathematics, they will be able to start on the revised, corrected, proper leaving certificate mathematics paper.
I am strongly of the opinion — as is Deputy O'Shea, obviously — that for many students, not necessarily those of low academic ability at all, mathematics have remained a very conceptual discipline.While a very high level achieved in mathematics obviously is a sign of high intelligence, at the same time, lack of skill in the higher echelons of mathematics does not necessarily mean that somebody is not adaptable to many other third-level disciplines in life, leaving training and job opportunities accessible to many. I do not think the two are mutually incompatible. I should like to see students who might be deemed not to be brilliant at mathematics have a practical curriculum available to them so that relevant practical questions of a not too highly conceptual nature would be asked in an examination which should be readily accepted as being of a good standard within the leaving certificate curriculum.
Within the next few weeks I intend to put the thoughts expressed here to the NCCA and the Mathematics Course Committee in order to ascertain whether we can arrive at an equitable solution for young people going into first year of senior cycle in September next.
Like Deputy O'Shea I wish all the students good luck in their examinations and indeed all of the examiners who will be correcting their papers. With the common ground established by way of various submissions and debates I hope  we will be able to reach an equitable solution for September next.
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