Is it time to mandate maths for senior secondary students?

06 Dec

Australian girls and boys, but particularly girls, are dropping maths and science as soon as possible at high school. Rachel Wilson looks at the potential impact of this trend on the Australian economy and student career options.

Are you the parents of a high school girl considering her Year 11 and 12 subject choices? Even if you're not, the issue of girls' participation and attainment in maths and science is an important topic. Let me explain why.

In the international OECD studies of educational attainment at 15 years, known as PISA, Australia has shown declining scores and increasing gender disparity. In maths for example, between the years 2000 and 2013, scores for boys declined from 527 to 510 – a drop of 3%. Over the same period, girls' maths scores declined from 522 to 498 – a 5.6% drop. In contrast, the OECD average improved slightly over this period and some countries dramatically improved their scores. Similar trends to this can be seen in science – but in this data and across a range of other indicators, maths is the primary area of concern.

Perhaps most critical is the decreasing number of girls studying maths and science for their higher school certificates. Recent figures from both Queensland and New South Wales paint a very grim picture with downward trends in participation over the past decade.  

As maths is very important in the development of science skills, this does not bode well for the long-term future of science and industry in Australia. Industry and economic experts prophesise that all new economies will be built on maths and science knowledge and skills, yet in NSW the proportion of girls going on to study advanced maths, physics and chemistry for HSC in NSW is now down to just 1.5%! Our economy and standard of living is in jeopardy as a result of this decline.

However, studying maths and science is not just about doing it for your country. There are also strong personal reasons for supporting girls (and boys!) to study these subjects.

First, maths and science skills are needed for the jobs market. With rising youth unemployment across Australia, an investment in these skills may offer some protection. Internationally the scene is prosperous with predictions of high demands for these skills. In some sectors of the Australian economy industry bodies are crying out for capacity in these skills.

 In engineering, for example, Australian graduates cannot meet demand and fill only 40% of the new positions each year, and companies have to recruit from overseas or accept individuals with lower qualifications. We need young people with maths and science skills to contribute and build national capacity in this area, if our economy is to grow beyond its agricultural and fossil fuel heritage. In doing so, savvy individuals will also secure themselves the employment opportunities that other youth will envy.

I am yet to find another developed economy where the education system doesn't mandate maths in senior high school.

Second, studying maths and science at school sets students up for success in a range of fields at university, further education and in their careers. These benefits stretch beyond employment in traditional science, engineering, technology and mathematics industries. Maths is the strongest school subject predictor of general abilities and studies show that national maths attainment is strongly linked to IQ and shifts in economic development. Simply put, studying maths is likely to make your daughter smarter in a range of ways.

The inverse of this is true too. Not studying maths puts students at a disadvantage in terms of succeeding in a wide range of fields. At the moment, with rates of maths and science study so low in secondary schools (with the exception of biology which is popular among girls), universities have enrolments in fields like health, nursing, architecture and even science degrees, that include students who have not studied maths since year 10. An increasing number of students are dropping the subject as soon as possible, as maths is mandated only until year 10 in the Australian Curriculum. These students struggle at the tertiary level, even if they take mathematics bridging courses. This is because maths skills – reading figure and graphs, calculating proportions and doses and reading research with statistical analyses – are all critical to these professions.

All over the world maths and science are recognised as being critical to education and economies; I am yet to find another developed economy where the education system doesn't mandate maths in senior high school. The top performers in education: Finland, Singapore, Japan and South Korea have close to full participation rates, with 90% plus, studying maths until their final year of school. In NSW 15% of HSC students are studying no maths at all and 65% have selected elementary General Maths. In the UK, where maths is mandated for GCSE (equivalent to our year 11), the House of Lords has launched an enquiry into making maths mandatory for A levels (Year 13). Even in West Africa, a region not known for educational standards, maths is required for the Senior School Certificate.

We need to stem the decline in standards in maths and science, especially among girls. Girls have always had issues engaging with maths and science. Internationally, many countries struggle to develop girls' motivation to study science and maths and historically boys have performed better, particularly in maths. However there are now a growing number of countries in which girls are performing equivalent to or better than boys in both these areas. We cannot blame the low rates of maths and science among our girls on motivation alone.

What has happened in Australia that we find ourselves in this precarious position with declining educational standards? Some small incremental shifts in policy, particularly in relation to upper secondary study, have left us with a choice-orientated system. In such a system, we can hardly blame students, teachers or schools for strategising on how to maximise achievement while minimising effort – which is exactly what's happening. Maths and science are challenging, curriculum-heavy subjects and, with the growth in alternative subjects, demotivated boys and girls find it easy to opt out of maths and science.

While the new Australian Curriculum is designed to bring clear standards and consistency to what students study across a range of key subject areas, it does not mandate any subjects beyond year 10. Perhaps it is time we had a national conversation about making maths and science matter for upper secondary school? If you have a daughter in high school, please have a conversation with her too! 

Your Sincerely

John Smith

College Staff Member 

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