Businesspeople, politicians and the media have, quite correctly, been paying considerable attention to the importance of improving education standards in certain areas that can fuel the knowledge economy in the decades ahead.

Our current economic difficulties make this need all the more acute. Mathematics, science and technology have been getting considerable emphasis and there is probably consensus now on the need to develop these areas if we are to have an appropriately educated graduate pool for the demands of the new world – whenever it emerges from the frightened one we are living in now.

As a small business owner who is of a generation that received a fine but nonetheless pretty standard education, I don't pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in this debate. But I have followed it reasonably closely and would accept that, while the place of the humanities and "softer" disciplines needs to be protected, we do need to pay more attention to maths and science. I was intrigued, therefore, at elements of my daughter's Junior Cert schedule last week.

On Tuesday she was examined in business – a subject she took up only in second year, against the wishes of her parents I might add. Business studies for children of 15 years of age should, I believe, be pretty general; it might address broad issues and stimulate debate across a range of areas that could be of value even if the student decided not to pursue the subject for his or her Leaving Cert. Anyway, the examination took the whole day for honours students. It was a five-hour slog over two papers.

Two days later she sat her science paper which, by contrast was a subject she had started in national school and which might just have a greater impact on her life than the much narrower field of business. Interestingly, the science exam, covering physics, chemistry and biology, was covered in one paper over the course of two-and-a-half hours.

I am not a science or maths graduate and I believe the educational mix must be very well balanced, particularly when students are in the formative years. Nor do I necessarily believe that science at this level should be taken over a full day and over more than one paper. My point is that the ratio of exam time (and one presumes effort) for business is disproportionate to the importance of science in shaping our young people's earliest education.

The breadth of learning involved in the Junior Cert science programme is significant. The study of physics can cover areas as varied as how light travels, the force of gravity and the earth's magnetic field; in chemistry the structure of atoms, molecules and stability of gases are all covered while in biology the child studies things like the function of cells, the respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems, pollution and conservation. Whatever courses these students choose for the Leaving Cert, and whatever career they follow later in life, these subjects will have a relevance that warrants much more attention that the Junior Cert examination programme suggests is paid to them.

Much of the business syllabus, by contrast, deals with functional issues that will be of no relevance whatsoever to these students for a considerable time, if at all. For example, at a glance, there is a vast amount of material on accounting which must be extraordinarily tedious for young minds. It is hard to imagine that many students would find the business curriculum in any way exciting. They end up learning this material off by rote, when they should be spending more of their time on subjects that tease their imagination and force them to think and explore ideas. Science can do that, but business cannot.

This column has praised education minister Batt O'Keeffe more than once. He has performed well in difficult circumstances. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan has not and yet here is a small area where she, as Minister for Enterprise and Employment, could initiate important change. She should push her ministerial colleague to correct this flaw in the curriculum.

The time allocated to the exams in science and business is only a symptom of the wider problem with the approach to these subjects at Junior Cert level. Until my interest in this matter was raised recently, I had assumed that science was compulsory at Junior Cert level. It is not: 13% of students do not study it which, given the exciting and important nature of the subject, appears to be a disappointing figure. Science should be a core subject as, with mathematics, it is very important in developing young people's analytical skills. Business is largely about applied capabilities and at Junior Cert level it is of questionable value.

We should be mindful that, despite the onslaught of the mind-numbing playstations and endless drivel on cable television, children of 14 and 15 are still curious. Science by its nature fuels those curious minds but business – certainly as taught as a Junior Cert subject – does not.

The knowledge economy which the taoiseach has talked of and which this government has set as a critical element of its long-term programme depends on feeding those curious young minds. If we fail to make science at Junior Cert an absolute priority then we will have failed to woo them at an age when they can still be stimulated to embrace real learning. Their long-term education and career prospects depend on a more enlightened approach.