## Getting to the points

This post is coming to you from Ireland, where I am currently on a short break. As Irish readers of this blog will know, one of the hottest news stories here right now is the impact on university admissions of the recent decision by Irish universities to award bonus points to secondary students taking and passing higher mathematics in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The movement towards this position was described some time ago in this blog, including this post written almost exactly two years ago.

The background to this whole issue was growing trend for students not to do higher level mathematics at all, thereby making the pool of those eligible to take various science and engineering courses very small; while at the same time the demand for people with these skills was rising significantly. Ireland was thought to be at risk economically if this trend were not corrected.

Well, bonus points were introduced, and the trend was most definitely corrected. As information has become available about the recent Leaving Certificate results, record numbers are now succeeding in mathematics, and demand for science, computing and engineering courses is up very significantly. So is everyone happy? Not a bit. Concerns are now being expressed that the whole points system has been distorted, and that those with no interest in science and engineering are getting mathematics-based bonus points for their applications to do, say, classics or English literature. And so there are called for the whole thing to be reversed again, or at any rate adjusted to award bonus points only to those wanting to do relevant subjects. Even the *Irish Times* has weighed in with an editorial, and in the meantime the whole issue is also likely to be included in more general proposals made by the universities to reform the points system.

This last point is important. When still President of DCU I strongly backed the proposal to award bonus points for mathematics, for the reasons set out above; but I never thought this was the complete answer. The reality is that this and other issues can only be resolved if the entire Irish points system is overhauled and, preferably in my view, abandoned. It has seriously damaged Irish secondary and higher education. It is time for it to go. But while we are waiting for that, people should not worry so much about the precise impact of bonus points: they are doing what was wanted of them. Most particularly, they have brought students back into the sciences, which was vital for Ireland. Now is not to the time to get ambivalent about that.

**Explore posts in the same categories:**higher education

**Tags:** Leaving Certificate, points system, university entrance

August 21, 2012 at 7:13 am

The call for a reshaping of the Irish system for access to third-level education seems justified. However, one might wonder what criteria may be used to accurately rate courses according to difficulty and without improper interference from professional bodies.

The puzzling claim is made that the mathematics based bonus points have “distorted” the system.

Your example focuses on students with no interest in science or engineering and who bring mathematics based points to the equation in gaining entry to an English course. It is difficult to see what is wrong with this. It cannot be that the analytical processes involved in mathematics have no place in the study of English: that would be tantamount to arguing not that the study of English involves purely subjective analysis, but that it entails irrational and disordered thought when it is at its best.

The person with the greatest reason to object in this situation is the student of English who did not get the course as a result; however, this objection seems best characterized as personal disappointment rather than systemic injustice.

Is it not the case that such a person, who is, by construction, at the bottom of the potential entrance cohort for the class, with less demonstrable competence in mathematics than the candidate who got in because of mathematics, would be commensurately less suited to economic survival in the world four years later, equipped with an English degree? Is it not in that person’s interest to find something sooner rather than later which would give greater access to post-degree competitive advantages?

August 21, 2012 at 7:29 am

I was listening to the TCD dean of UGS on the wireless. Well since it was an mp4 not so wireless actually :-). Anywoos, he intends that TCD will accept other entry methods after ’14. One he mentioned was where a student that got 450 points might be one of the highest in one school while 550 was an relatively common occurrence in another. He said that it was a better indicator of ability and grit as well as scholastic achievement if a kid got 450 against the odds. But the current system doesn’t see this kid at all.

On the higher level maths. The whole thing seems cosmetic.

August 21, 2012 at 9:09 am

One distortion of the bonus points is that a student’s ‘seventh subject’ gets neglected as effort is focused on maths. This was the key problem with higher maths; it took more work so why do it if one only needed 6 subjects for points. A useful reform (if they keep the points system – which they shouldn’t) would be to either require 7 subjects or drop one subject from the LC course of study.

August 21, 2012 at 9:26 am

The substantive issue, that we are not educating sufficient numbers of school leavers with the required mathematical skills to get places in university, is basically founded on the relatively poor mathematical (and science) teaching skills of many of our national school teachers and the resources available to them in our national schools. The current furore on university bonus points for maths is centred around trying to find a soultion that, quite frankly, cannot generally be found at 2nd level schools. Children from ages 4 to12 attending our national schools have brains like sponges, where they can soak up lots of information including mathematical principles – maths CAN be fun and interesting! Regrettably some of our national school teachers who teach maths have brains like sieves, where their understanding or interest in maths has long since gone (if it was there at all), leaving them and their charges bored, suspicious or downright anatgonistic to maths – they shut down, they say it’s too hard, and they bring these fears and feelings of low confidence into their secondary schools with the consequences that we have been observing for years, until-BINGO!! Let’s give those that have made it through national and secondary school maths (even those with a vestige of ability) extra points, and PROBLEM SOLVED. No. I agree – review the points system, but more importantly, train and resource our national school teachers to deliver more interesting and enagaging maths and scinces programmes in our national schools.

August 21, 2012 at 11:38 am

I couldn’t agree more. Also 25 points is not that much for a subject that takes up more time than the rest put together

August 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I very much agree with the awarding of bonus points for Mathematics and I admit to having a somewhat vested interest as I’m in the technology area.

However, I’d also suggest awarding some bonus points for higher level English (perhaps fewer, say 15). The ability to construct sentences and make reasoned arguments also help with post-degree competitiveness (to borrow no-name’s jargon from above).

Of course we’d have to stop there — can’t have bonus points for everything 🙂

August 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm

The acceptance of bonus points, in my opinion, was one of the worst decisions made in recent years. As a strategy for encouraging students to take higher maths it is about as educationally sophisticated as stapling a 100 euro bribe to the front of every Leaving Cert. exam script. And although your argument seems to be ‘it worked so that validates it’ what our university presidents forgot is that their institutions caused the problem in the first place.

Virtually every science (and computing) course in DCU (as an obvious example) requires a minimum maths grade of either an HD3 or OC3 grade. In terms of points, an HD3 is equivalent to 45 points whereas an OC3 is a mere 20 points. So, what DCU and other universities were doing was equating 45 and 20 points for minimum entry requirements in maths. Perhaps you might explain how the minimum entry requirement for students can be set at two different points values? Either it’s 45 points or 20 points, but not both at the same time. Why are the points lower for ordinary level students?!

Students realised that they didn’t need to take Higher level maths to meet the minimum entry requirements for a huge range of science and technology courses. And so, what we saw was more and more students opting for the Ordinary level. By doing so, they hoped it would lead to better performance in their remaining 5 subjects and hence have a better change at meeting the CAO points cutoffs. And, I repeat, this was the fault of the universities themselves.

Bonus points for maths are completely unneccessary. All universities had to do was square the Higher and Ordinary level maths entry requirements. This would mean that courses requiring maths would require a decent grade in maths. Courses not requiring maths wouldn’t.

If students suddenly found themselves in a situation where mediocre Ordinary level grades (like DCU’s OC3 requirement, which last year more than 66% of Ordinary level students met) would not meet the minimum requirements for science and technology courses, I have no doubt that many more would have taken Higher level maths.

We caused the problem with stupid entry requirements and yet don’t seem to be prepared to acknowledge that fact.