While the uptake for higher level mathematics has flattened out after several years of growth - 27% of candidates took the higher paper, the same number as 2014 - other STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), had an increase in students taking the higher level paper


There was some welcome news in this year’s Leaving Certificate results which reveal that while the uptake for higher level maths has flattened out after several years of growth – 27 per cent of candidates took the higher paper, the same as in 2014 – other STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) saw greater numbers sitting the higher level examinations.

There was a 19 per cent rise in the number of students taking higher level technology (with a 3.7 per cent spike in the numbers securing a grade C or higher) and a 5.6 per cent rise in students who sat higher level engineering.


Emerald AC and Ireland athlete Jenna Bromell, who scored seven A1s in her Leaving Cert, with Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan

Uptake in higher level biology rose 4.7 per cent; chemistry 4.2 per cent; design and communications graphics 2.3 per cent, with a slight increase in grades across all subjects save for biology where there was a noticeable spike of 4.9 per cent in the proportion getting C or better.

The rise in the proportion of students taking higher-level physics and applied maths was better still (at 6.7 per cent and 10 per cent respectively) but the percentage getting a C or higher fell (by 3.2 per cent and 2.2 per cent respectively). And, in higher level maths, the failure rate has risen to 5.2 per cent, up from 4.2 per cent last year, 3.3 per cent in 2013 and 2.3 per cent in 2012.

Engineers Ireland has welcomed the fact that there has been an increase in Leaving Certificate students opting for higher level STEM subjects. Caroline Spillane, director general, Engineers Ireland, said: “The continued uptake of students taking higher-level STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) related subjects in this year’s Leaving Certificate is extremely positive.

“In particular, it is encouraging to see a rise in the number of students who sat higher level engineering and technology papers – increases of 5.6 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

‘Unprecedented demand for engineering and science skills’

“In Ireland, and globally, there is unprecedented demand for graduates with engineering and science skills. Looking at the rate of change in technology sectors, as well as the more traditional sectors of the economy, there is no sign of this slowing down.

“During the last year, through the schools’ engagement programme STEPS, which is run by Engineers Ireland, 80,000 face-to-face interactions took place between engineer role models and students, to encourage them to explore the world of STEM and engineering as a career choice. The statistics on STEM subjects across the board, from uptake to grades, indicate the message has been taken on board by students.

“It is important that we maintain this momentum to ensure a continued supply of qualified, skilled engineers for Ireland’s economic growth and development,” Spillane added.

Tony Donohue, head of education policy at employers’ group Ibec, said that the interest in STEM subjects has led to a greater number of applications for third-level science and technology courses. But he warned there was no room for complacency.

“More than 40 per cent of respondents to a recent employer survey anticipate a shortage of skills in the next five years in engineering, ICT, specific quantitative skills and languages,” he said. And the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN), which recently published the National Skills Bulletin 2015 and which was reported in EngineersJournal.ie, pointed out something similar in its research.

Shortages in ICT and construction

Una Halligan, chairperson of the EGFSN, said: “The report shows that, with the economic recovery strengthening, shortages are intensifying in the previously identified areas such as ICT, engineering, logistic, health, business and finance, and emerging in new areas such as hospitality and construction. With improved job prospects across all sectors of the economy, issues with attracting and retaining staff are emerging in some areas.”

Meanwhile, according to the CAO – first-round college offers will be issued next Monday – first preferences for third-level engineering and technology programmes are up by 14 per cent this year. However, students are advised to consider the many routes to engineering as a career, not just through Level 8 and 9 courses, but also via lower-entry Level 6 and 7 courses.

Engineering is a vast and diverse discipline, offering many different career paths over a lifetime, from technician up to CEO. Engineers Ireland accredits third-level engineering courses that ensure graduates are trained in a variety of transferable skills including teamwork and creativity so they are more effective in today’s workplace. Students and parents can visit steps.ie and smartfutures.ie to learn more about routes to engineering and to read profiles of real-life engineers and STEM professionals.

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), said: “The combined efforts of government policy and effective teaching have had tangible effects on the uptake of both STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and foreign language learning.”

“STEM in particular has immeasurable worth to this new generation of school leavers. Ireland’s digital economy is burgeoning, but a lack of tech skills means talent is imported from abroad to fill the sector’s 6,000 vacancies,” Mr Byrne said.

Investment in STEM-focused curriculum and long-term benefits

“This is now beginning to change. Continued investment in and promotion of a STEM-focused curriculum by policymakers and educators will only bring further long-term benefits to our children.

“The fact that our future generations are increasingly equipped with strong language and communication skills is also very promising. The increased number of those sitting higher level Irish examinations indicates that the bonus points system acts as a good incentive; while the slight increase in those taking French, German and Spanish is a positive outcome considering two-thirds of companies use foreign language skills in conducting business.’

“Finally, a sense of perspective is important. A good Leaving Cert is a valuable qualification, but CAO results do not dictate the future. Over the coming weeks, principals, deputy principals, teachers and counsellors will be on hand across the country to advise and support students looking at alternatives, or different paths, to college,” Mr Byrne said.

With regard to higher level maths, the introduction of 25 CAO bonus points for a D grade or better three years ago has led to a 30 per cent rise in those taking the paper, and the numbers are set to go up even more in two years’ time when a new CAO system will award points to students who score 30-39 per cent – presently regarded as an E or ‘fail’ – at higher level.

According to a report in The Irish Times, Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has not ruled out reviewing the recently introduced bonus for honours Leaving Certificate maths in light of the further rise in the number of those failing the higher paper.

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  There was some welcome news in this year's Leaving Certificate results which reveal that while the uptake for higher level maths has flattened out after several years of growth - 27 per cent of candidates took the higher paper, the same as in 2014 - other STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and...