Article by Tim Dodd, Australian Financial Review
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has failed in his bid to make a maths or science subject compulsory in year 12 after Labor states rejected it at an education ministers’ council meeting on Friday.
Mr Pyne said after the meeting he would continue to push for a mandatory maths or science subject to the end of high school.
“But I think it’s fair to say that I have a way to go convincing all the state and territory ministers,” he said.
Opposition to Mr Pyne’s plan was led by Labor governed states of Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
“Compulsion is a very blunt instrument and making maths and science mandatory could turn students off the subjects for life,” said a spokesperson for Victorian Education Minister James Merlino.
“We need to build up the maths and science teaching capability in our schools, and make sure we engage students by making these subjects relevant and interesting.”
Federal Labor, despite supporting improved maths, science and computer education, also opposes making the subjects compulsory in year 12.
However, the Education Minister’s council did agree to work on a national strategy to increase science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education in schools.
BAD STATS FOR MATHS
Australia is an outlier among developed countries, as it does not require students to study maths to the end of high school.
Only five of 50 US states do not require maths for high school graduation. Britain, which like Australia does not require maths, has a 10-year plan to make maths mandatory in the A-levels exam at the end of high school.
In Australia about 80 per cent of students do maths to year 12. But most of these (just over 50 per cent of year 12 students) are doing only basic maths. Teenage maths skills are in decline and the latest OECD international benchmark test (the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA) shows Australian 15-year-olds have slipped in maths by the equivalent of half a year’s schooling in the last 10 years.
Even so, support for making maths compulsory to year 12 is not widespread. The Business Council of Australia (BCA), which strongly supports improved STEM education, said while maths was important, it did not support making it compulsory to year 12.
“We think that the approach should be to engage students in subjects like maths and science much earlier by improving the way we teach it so they see it as exciting and relevant to their lives,” a BCA spokesperson said.
Geoff Prince, director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, also said maths should not be compulsory to year 12. He said exposing the 20 per cent of year 12 students currently not studying maths to the subject would not lead to more innovation in the economy or more students choosing to become maths teachers.
He said it was more important to persuade students with maths talent, who were currently studying basic maths, to do it at a more advanced level.
However, University of Sydney maths education researcher Rachel Wilson disagreed, saying that there was little chance of arresting the decline in STEM education without making subjects compulsory to the end of high school.
“Students do things because they are valued. At the moment we are sending a message that maths is not valued,” she said.