Mandatory maths won’t STEM decline

Fiona Mueller

01 November 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Even with 400 hours of secondary school mathematics under their belts, it seems that Year 10 students in New South Wales remain underprepared for the 21st century. One proposed remedy is to make mathematics compulsory from Kindergarten through to Year 12.

Prioritising mathematics was announced as part of the NSW Government’s promise to ‘take the curriculum back to the basics’ — apparently in response to the interim findings of the recent NSW Curriculum Review.

Unfortunately, with the Review’s author conceding that the main question is whether the proposed reforms are even heading in the right direction, the report epitomises the lack of clarity, vision and strategy in Australian education.

Weirdly, while chewing up a lot of taxpayer dollars, the NSW Review is being undertaken well before a planned review of the Australian Curriculum in 2020. So policy decisions will be made for students and teachers in one state that may turn out to be even less aligned to practices applying to students across the country than they are now.

Rather than starting with a post-mortem of how we got into the current mess, the NSW effort echoes other misguided reviews, showing a fixation on globalisation and technological threats and promoting yet more educational experiments.

Technology specialist and CEO of global marketing company Freelancer, Matt Barrie, recently referred to Australian education as a “basket case” that produces “avocado toast” graduates whose poor skills – especially in computer science and engineering – explain the national slump in productivity.

Any curriculum can set forward priorities. The NSW Government seems intent on bringing mathematics to the fore, but does this make STEM the holy grail?

Education systems that regularly outperform Australia do not expect their school leavers only to master STEM subjects. In Finland and Singapore, for example, there is also an intensive, sustained focus on languages and humanities subjects. Producing well-educated citizens who can contribute to the national good is a sophisticated undertaking.

Improvements do not come from the ad hoc compilation of ideas or from intermittently bolting subjects on to the curriculum.

A more constructive approach would be to identify policy mistakes that have let down many young Australians, but which have been cleverly avoided by high-performing school systems elsewhere.

This should include an honest analysis of what has worked, what has gone wrong and why, and what can be done – without fear or favour – to change things for the better for future generations.

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