Is Leaving Cert Maths Overvalued?

A friend of mine got 50 more points than I did in the leaving cert yesterday. “Great,” I said when she told me the news. “No,” was the reply, “I have to repeat. I got an E in Maths.”

The fears of Leaving Cert Maths are burned right into my cerebral cortex now. I thought I had gotten past it two years after my results came back with (just about) a pass in ordinary level. Alas, not.

From the experience of myself and others I know, students spend most, by far, of their time studying Maths in the Leaving Cert. The breadth of the Maths curriculum being taught in the Leaving Cert is vast, and if you fail, everything else you do is in vain.

If you happen to be born with an aptitude for Maths, then all is good. You get a bureaucratic pat on the back for being the way you are. And what’s more, you then have the leeway to focus on getting everything else right, which other people don’t have the luxury of. The other subjects’ curricula are, by far, less substantial than the Maths curriculum.

I studied higher level Maths until the Leaving Cert mocks exam, and I performed dreadfully. Drawn in by the siren call of the extra 25 points, I crashed and burned on that fateful day.

But not for lack of trying; I put massive time into studying maths – So much so that my other studies had suffered, I had failed my French exam and damn near failed my Biology too. I got an almighty result of 29 per cent for twice weekly evenings spent in school, hours of home study neglected elsewhere, and let’s not forget that there are more contact hours for Maths than other subjects in school in the first place. I even missed other classes when lunchtime tutoring ran overtime.

So the bonus points award in Maths is simply giving students already with that aptitude an unnecessary buffer.

The Department of Education offer students ample opportunity to improve at Maths, but Maths exclusively. In my case, we had inter-scholar events at the local IT, grinds being held by all the school’s Maths teachers and a plethora of other services. But what for? I wanted a Humanities course – Maths does play a part, yes, but not at the level we were studying; even at Ordinary level. And by being subjected to so much of it, by being unable to study anything else, it was being distanced from the degree course I wanted.

Other subjects that required revision, were quite simply, not being covered in my routine. What did it matter if I failed just one? I gave Art history a quick run through. I could rely on the practical there. Biology? If I could retain enough of that on the first run, I’d hopefully have enough for guesswork.

Put this way – I could get 600 points, and still fail the Leaving Certificate because I only manage an E in Maths. Nobody can say that doesn’t give a distinct advantage to people who pick up mathematics the first time around. Why should that be prioritised? Much of the Maths curriculum is less than useless in day-to-day applications, or in many jobs.

Instead, the majority of students have to split their time, reducing their abilities in subjects that they are good at, to accommodate for something that they will never, realistically, use in real life situations.

That’s not to say some Maths aren’t useful. But the Department of Education’s ‘Project Maths’ solution, to try and put the subject into a ‘real life’ context, has been an utter disaster. No other curriculum has had such error-prone exam papers. And having an omnirelevant umbrella subject for all-the-Maths-you-will-ever-need is a naive, under-thought and out-of-date concept.

Business Maths can be included in Business Studies (which, as far as I’m aware, they already are). Scientific Maths can be included in whichever branch of Science they belong. Don’t try and force, say, an aspiring Art History student to swallow up some proofs they’ll never see again.

What is the purpose of school? To create willing and enthusiastic members of the work force in the future. And if we’re clogging up schools with Leaving Cert repeaters and lengthening dole queues with people whose self-confidence has been crushed – people who in both cases are guilty of the crime of being good at other ‘less important’ things, then there is much that needs to be changed.

The Department here could serve to learn from other systems. Look at Northern Ireland, for example. They consistently achieve higher marks than any other part of Britain. And they have the ability to drop whichever subjects they don’t like and choose the subjects that will give them a chance at doing what they do want to do in life.

The system here of ‘these students don’t know what they want to do so we won’t let them choose’ is patronising, in my view. Even if students don’t know what they want to do when picking subjects, they know what they like, and have a talent for, and that is where, in an ideal and functional society, they will be most useful in.

Do away with the ‘fail Maths, fail the Leaving Cert’ mentality. That’s the first step. Then our high achievers don’t have to repeat Maths.


Ryan McBride

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