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Ireland vs. England…. 14.08.14

Please don’t get the wrong impression, this is not a competition. I’ve just found myself pondering the differences between how maths and physics are taught in schools in the two countries. I studied in Ireland and have been a tutor here in the UK, so I’ve noticed the differences for a while. But then exam results season kicked off, so it made me think a little more about it.

Yesterday, students around Ireland received their Leaving Certificate results, today it was the turn of the A-Levels. In some cases, there was good news for those interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) – in the UK, maths has become the most popular A-level subject, overtaking English for the first time.

In Ireland, maths is compulsory at Leaving Cert level, but the numbers of those choosing to take the higher level paper has risen considerably. Much of this is rise is due to a controversial incentive scheme in Ireland – in order to encourage more students to take the harder maths course, students are offered “bonus points” if they pass the exam – which can give you the edge in the commutative score-led university admissions system. This year, criticisms of the bonus point scheme were somewhat silenced by the pass rates – 95% of those who sat the higher level maths exam passed it, suggesting that the scheme has encouraged capable students to stick with the tougher course.

But some of the other figures make for grim reading. There is still a strong gender imbalance in those taking maths, further maths and physics at A-level. For maths, almost 2 out of every 5 students were female, but it goes downhill from there…. For further maths, the figure was just 28%, and for A-level physics, just 21% of those who sat the exam were female. In Ireland, they’ve seen a slightly higher proportion of girls taking the physics exam, but boys still account for three-quarters of Leaving Cert students in physics. Worryingly though, almost a quarter of schools do not offer physics at Leaving Cert level.

So it’s very clear that neither country is perfect when it comes to educating our children in maths and physics. But I hope that we can learn more from each other and make some progress. Maths and physics are often described as gateway subjects to STEM careers, and the low proportion of girls taking on these subjects should be a worry for all those involved in STEM.

My advice – science and technology-based organisations need to engage with schools as early as possible – this leaky pipeline will impact your workforce. Please help to fix it!

– Laurie