There's some considerable debate here in Ireland about the need to "up skill" our economy, in the light of loss of jobs to lower cost economies. I however contend that there is not so much a need to "up skill", but to "core skill" - to get back to fundamentals and thus ensure that we have a solid foundation of lifetime skills.
One of the key attractions which as a nation have used to attract and retain our comparatively high levels of foreign direct investment in Ireland has been the availability of a talented, well educated and technically oriented workforce. If we in Ireland aspire to build a future for our own young people as a leading nation for innovation; with high value services; succeeding as a knowledge-fuelled economy; having good, stable and well paid jobs; and with the ability to afford high quality social support for the weaker members of our society, then education in core intellectual skills are inextricably intertwined with our future.
Our young people should be able to reason, to deduce and derive, to correlate and spot patterns, to explore and to be inquisitive, and to be articulate and confident. In my humble view, these are more life centric skills than learning facts and perspectives by rote: knowing something off by heart, but not understanding why, why not, and so what. Skills taught in schools should be for life. There are many things which can be learnt during adulthood, but some skills which are difficult to learn without a solid foundation during the teens and 20s.
Without these skills, we will have little to offer the 21st century global economy. If our young people are weak in core skills, many of them may not find well paid careers in Ireland nor overseas: these jobs will go to other nationals in other economies.
In my view, and I admit as an elderly grey traditionalist, mathematics is a critical catalyst to careful reasoning and deduction. Mathematics is too vast to be learnt by rote and instead requires insightful thinking and intellectual clarity. Taught well, it enables core intellectual skills for life. It also makes learning easier, not just for mathematics, but many other subjects, since understanding comes from reasoning, rather than learning by rote.
The decline in the Irish attainment of mathematics and core sciences has been gradual. It has perhaps gone unnoticed by many, but major employers across a range of business sectors of strategic importance to Ireland are seriously concerned to see substantial decreases in the number of our students taking technology courses, and in particular the fall off in those taking mathematics. If we all aspire to build a future for our young people as outlined above, then competence in mathematics is a cornerstone. Competence in mathematics underpins not just engineering and the physical sciences, but also sectors such as alternative energy and green systems, financial services, medical research, and cross disciplinary areas such as bio-engineering. For so many areas of our potential national prosperity and quality of society, competence in mathematics is critical.
With further government budget cuts imminent, there is a very serious risk that teaching in mathematics and the core sciences will dramatically suffer further. This is especially so at secondary school (high school, in Ireland) level, since these subjects are perceived as resource intensive and difficult to teach. The Principals of eleven secondary schools of one Irish county have recently jointly written an open letter to all the parents of all their students stating that in view of Government cutbacks, they may no longer be in a position to teach honours mathematics and sciences at all in their schools. There is further anecdotal evidence of schools consciously cutting their teaching programmes in areas which are nevertheless critical to the future of our nation, as their way of meeting newly imposed budgetary constraints.
Incredibly, almost 20% of our schools no longer offer honours mathematics to their students. In 2007, only 14% of Irish university applicants to honours degrees had achieved honours mathematics capability in school.
It is also widely accepted that several factors need to be urgently and collectively addressed to resolve this issue: the professional development and inspiration of mathematics teachers; the teaching and examination methods of honours Mathematics; and other implicit disincentives to students such as points, grading and curriculum factors.
Points, in particular, deserve mention. In Ireland, we have a highly unfortunate and ill-conceived national system of awarding points in our school examinations for grades obtained, regardless of the intellectual difficulty of any particular subject. Earning points by studying honours mathematics is widely projected as overly difficult when equivalent points could be earned for less effort elsewhere. Students are in some cases explicitly advised by some teachers and advisers to take a cluster of subjects which together may overlap in content and collectively make points accumulation easier, regardless of career aspirations. Students who score particularly high totals of points, are under considerable pressure to undertake university degrees which require high numbers of points to apply, regardless of their career aspirations: "don't waste your points". University courses with limited places (due to resource constraints) usually require high levels of points. Courses which offer wonderful career opportunities do not necessarily require extremely high points, and high scoring students usually as a result do not take them.
Examinations are ill constructed. Substantial question choice enables teachers to omit major sections of a course syllabus, thus focussing students on a more limited syllabus which is likely to be sufficient to earn examination points. I'm aware of university professors aghast that some first year university students, ostensibly with high numbers of points, arrive into technology degree courses without any knowledge, for example, of trigonometry: some teachers omit trigonometry from their teaching, correctly believing that high points can still be achieved by filtering out questions during an examination.
In my view, our economy can no longer afford to be impartial in the content of its educational services. Some topics available at our schools can be learnt at any stage in life: others are much more difficult to do so.
Teachers should be encouraged to foster reasoning, deduction, derivation, correlation, exploration and curiosity, intellectual clarity and insight, fluency and confidence. Mathematics and the core sciences are clear catalysts. Teachers who achieve consistent success in their students in these subjects should not only be acclaimed but also receive fiscal reward - if this cannot be done through Government pay, it may be possible to do via industry sponsored competitions. Teachers whose own core skills are weak should be offered re-skilling and professional development. Considerably more use should be made of the web - including podcasts and vidcasts to complement the music on students' personal players - to cultivate dynamic, current, interesting course material: social free educational networking can compensate to some extent weaknesses in any specific teacher in a particular school.
Our country needs to get back to basics: core skills taught well, rather than nebulous "up skills". Mathematics and the core sciences are one critical foundation.