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We Shouldn’t Be Pushing Students To Go To University

The CAO has an inherently flawed bias to pushing students into the wrong University courses. And it's never flagged!

Last week, a startling figure caught my eye – over 19,000 students in 2022 neither accepted a CAO course or started an apprenticeship. On digging deeper, the apprenticeship registration numbers for 2022 were dismally low – why were they so low when the economy is flying?

Add those 19,000 students in limbo to the 1 in 8 students who will drop out of University in 1st year, and it begs the question – how are we pushing so many students into unsuitable courses? 

I think a deep dive into the Maths bonus points and a look at the apprenticeship registrations can reveal some plain flaws.

The Negative Impact Of The Higher Level Maths’ Bonus 

Students who sit and pass the Higher Level Maths are awarded with an additional 25 CAO points. This new system was first announced in 2010 and brought into place for the 2012 Leaving Cert. This new system increased the number of students taking Higher Level Maths has more than doubled, but has it damaged the CAO system?

In 2011, the year before the new system was enacted, 15% of students took Higher Level Maths. Over a decade later, in 2022, this number has increased to 36%. But, the points for CAO courses have inflated year after year. So, it begs the question, are students just using Maths for the points or because they actually want to do it?

Play a game with me here. When I say “Don’t think of the pink elephant”, what did you imagine in your head?

And so, take a stressed student as an example. When they are advised not to do a course because of the points, what do they do?

They grasp to the only tangible thing they can visualise, and that is the CAO course points they can get.

The facts speak for themselves. In 2011/2012, only 6.7% of students dropped out before the end of their first year in university. A decade later, that number has more than doubled to be 14-15%

Some Schools Overhype University To Students

Students aren’t only being driven in the direction of courses they don’t like, though. Some schools are heavily pushing for students to go into university afterward, and almost completely forgetting about the opportunity of apprenticeships. In a new Irish Times article, metrology engineer, Shannon Kearney, discusses how the lack of information at her school regarding engineering and apprenticeships impacted her. She had taken an aptitude test in secondary school, and was encouraged to pursue a career in engineering. However, her school didn’t have much information available at the time to help her. So, instead she was pushed to pursue university, and told that she could get a job anywhere she wanted after graduation, regardless of her degree. But, after she graduated, she was left with few job opportunities and a job that she didn’t really enjoy. While working in customer service, she was given the opportunity to do an engineering apprenticeship. She took the chance and never turned back. 

But why hadn’t her secondary school taught her about apprenticeships earlier? Why had they pushed so hard for her to go to university instead of pursuing an avenue that would fulfil her more? Especially since most apprenticeships are very Maths oriented, it’s peculiar that some schools only push for higher level Maths in the context of University opportunities only, rather than apprenticeships as well. 

Maybe it’s because some school look at the school feeder tables every August and see if they are improving up the table. It’s like a fantasy football table – useless and away form reality. CAO points are useless if you drop out of college or choose the wrong course.

Apprenticeship Statistics

First off, what is an apprenticeship? Apprenticeships are employer-led programmes that develop apprentices’ skills while they work. They get to earn while they learn! However, the amount of apprentices in Ireland is far lower than it should be, especially compared to other countries. In 2021/2022, the Irish apprenticeship population was 24,212, which is 0.48% of our population. In England, there were 740,400 apprentices in 2021/2022, which is 1.3% of their population. That’s almost 3 times the level of apprenticeships as Ireland. 

It seems that the number of apprentices dipped around the time that Higher Level Maths became more encouraged. In 2006, there were 8,306 apprenticeship registrations. However this number dropped in 2010 (the same year the new extra 25 point system was announced) when there were only 1,204 apprenticeship registrations. Recently though, we have been building back up the number of apprentices with new government plans put in place. The results have been positive, with 8,607 apprenticeship registrations in 2021. But this is still an ridiculously low percentage of our population. We’ve had a 24% population increase since 2006, yet the level of apprenticeship registrations has not changed.

Government Apprenticeship Plan 

The Irish government is actively trying to resolve this issue, but enacting the Apprenticeship Action Plan. This plan supports both learners and employers with the current 60 programs leading to valuable qualifications. The programs help in areas like finance, accountancy, laboratory technicians, engineering, heavy vehicle mechanics, and healthcare. The program’s goal is to increase apprenticeship registration numbers to 10,000 by 2025, which still isn’t a lot, but it is better than the current situation.

But we shouldn’t stop here. It’s not only important to aid employers in getting more apprentices. It’s crucial to integrate information about apprenticeships into secondary school as well. The most common way to go into apprenticeship is through the leaving cert. But there just isn’t enough information provided by schools to help students go in this direction. Many apprenticeships, like finance, engineering, accountancy, and more, involve Maths. So, the new system of 25 extra points for passing Higher Level Maths was never a bad thing, but the reason it’s been encouraged by schools (to get into the highest possible point college courses), is the issue.

Conclusion

Students should challenge themselves in school and try to achieve the best marks they can. But the route students take after graduating from secondary school doesn’t have to be university.

Intelligence comes in many forms. But, as I keep highlighting, the CAO only grades students on one metric-academic intelligence. The CAO is not fit for purpose. In a country where we desperately need more trades people, we are subconsciously discouraging students away from apprenticeships and into academic courses. Because, it’s just one system. The CAO is still the ‘Be and all and end all’, regardless of what government spin you hear. And it’s not working.

Time for change. Time to focus on courses students actually want, and not because they can get the points.

– TJ (CEO of Breakthrough Maths)