Having been castigated for her performance in the economic portfolio of trade and enterprise (a job at which, for all his bluster, Batt O'Keeffe is proving equally ineffective) last week was Mary Coughlan's time to shine as education minister.

A couple of her interventions recently have been positive: the decision to change the promotions criteria for teachers to prioritise talent and initiative over length of service should help encourage the ambitious and innovative in our schools. The lifting of the recruitment embargo on appointments vital to the running of schools is sensible. Equally valuable is the recognition that new teachers, at primary level particularly, need mentoring and support.

But Leaving Cert results day, as the almost 58,000 candidates know, is crunch time.

It's not just a test of individuals as they move from secondary education into third level, but of the entire system's capacity to perform.

And, as the results have shown yet again this year, it's an area that is in crisis.

Despite the fact that it has been the strategic policy of this government for the past decade to develop Ireland as an innovation hub, the second level of our education system continues to fail dramatically to deliver the goods that will underpin the vision of this country as a high-tech playground for multinationals and campus start-ups alike.

Post-industrial dreams of laboratories filled with white-coated technophiles do not come true when 4,400 out of 58,000 students fail maths altogether, only 16% of pupils take the subject at higher level and failure rates in chemistry, physics and biology average 8%, while 6.5% don't make the grade in business.

Mary Coughlan's response – and this is not to single her out because it is slightly more decisive than three of her predecessors have managed – is to say that bonus points for honours maths may be given in 2012.

If ever there was a non-solution to a problem that requires deep consideration this is one and it is no wonder that at least two universities have set their faces adamantly against it. It does nothing to raise maths or science standards. It changes nothing except to give those who are already good at maths a bigger advantage over those who aren't.

If we were serious about raising standards, we would intensify analysis of the new Project Maths curriculum which, for all its success, still has its doubters.

We would roll out massive support within schools for maths teachers to help them develop better ways of teaching this rigorous subject. We would prioritise upgrading laboratory facilities in all secondary schools in the capital programme so that all aspects of science become real for students, rather than a series of formulae learned by rote from a textbook. We would even introduce something as basic for practically every other developed country in the world as a full science syllabus at primary level – an advantage, by the way, that none of today's batch of Leaving Cert candidates ever experienced.

What's worse is that upgrading maths through a bonus system penalises those who may not have an aptitude for maths. These are the students who take the subjects we, as a nation, excel at. English, history, art and music, when studied to a level of excellence, demand just as much work as maths or science. At an international level, our writers, historians, artists and musicians have gained international renown. We have more Nobel prizewinners in the arts than most countries of our size. Yet our success in this area does not seem to be valued at a political level as a strategic economic tool, in the same way as the "smart economy" project is.

Billions have been targeted over the next decade on developing our technological prowess from a standing start. What could the arts world achieve with even a fraction of that money were it at its disposal given the international reputation we already enjoy?

The Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, currently taking place in Scotland, is a fantastic example of the sort of creativity, employment, artistic, educational and tourism spin-off that arts investment can generate. It's estimated to be worth over €150m a year to Edinburgh alone.

The other big issue is third-level funding. The Green Party veto on the reintroduction of third-level fees has created a funding monster that, at this point in our economic decline, is neither equitable nor rational. At a time when more young people than ever need to be able to avail of the best possible education we can give them, this refusal even to countenance fees looks more perverse by the day.

Coughlan hinted that registration fees will go up again. They are already €1,500, a fee by any other name. All her hints point to further rises in the budget.

This is not a policy, it is a fudge, and makes the entire government look ridiculous in the eyes of the education sector and indeed parents who, though they might not want to pay fees, also want their children to enjoy a first-class education rather than underfunded mediocrity.

It is a difficult political choice to stir resentment of the already hard-hit middle classes by charging third-level fees. But to do nothing is to abdicate government responsibility on this issue. The quality of our third-level education is a cornerstone of our potential to get out of the economic mess we find ourselves in. Our universities and many of our institutes of technology are worthy of more respect than to be left limping and semi-rudderless at a time when students most need them.

The Greens must justify the veto if it is to continue.