Premier should just make Maths compulsory for the HSC

The Premier is pushing a complex plan to persuade more students to study Maths; she “is leading the push to have every NSW student studying maths in year 12”. Which is strange when you think about it, because she could just jump straight to achieving that by making Maths compulsory again.

Maths was compulsory for the HSC until 2001. Ever since then it has been in decline. In an increasingly competitive HSC field, Maths is seen as (a) difficult and (b) scaling poorly unless you’re at the top end – and as a result far too many students don’t choose it. The only bright spot has been a recent bump in the figures for the Maths General course which I’m guessing is because more Universities are requiring some Maths as a prerequisite.

The Premier is saying “a new maths-based HSC course for students who have not typically chosen to study maths will be piloted next year”. While this may be meaningful, it may also be not learning from history. A few years ago they made the Physics curriculum less Maths-based so it would appeal more widely (Physics has an even bigger problem than Maths with student numbers). The result has been no change in numbers but, according to Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons, a curriculum that leaves students “ill equipped for university”. So a new Maths course focusing on the use of Maths could be useful, but it might well achieve little other than people ticking a box marked ‘maths’ without actually gaining a useful understanding of the subject. In fact it would probably be most useful in the context of Maths being compulsory – where it could be the choice of those who don’t need maths at University.

The scaling problem is interesting because Maths used to scale well when it was compulsory – because it was one of the two subjects everybody did and so was used as the metric for all the scaling. Now English, as the only compulsory subject, is used as the scaling metric – which many people have pointed out often works against choosing Maths, or other STEM subjects, if you’re focused on scaled marks.

Anyway, the Premier is also calling upon the Universities to encourage students to study Maths at school. There’s no arguing that if Universities require Maths it will change the number of people studying Maths – but that’s in effect saying ‘ make Maths compulsory” which the Premier can just do.

The other plank in the new plan is the Premier funding more specialist Maths teachers in primary school and scholarships for STEM undergraduates and career-changers to fund their Masters’ degree in education. I’ve written before about how we’re in a death spiral with fewer and fewer qualified Maths teachers available to enthuse students about choosing Maths, leading to fewer students, leading to fewer teachers, and so on. So more teacher funding is good. But it’s also somewhat disingenuous to say that the numbers being mooted will really make the difference when you spread them over all the schools in NSW (20 new specialised Maths teachers per year for five years is a drop in the ocean).

And teachers are the key. I’m guessing that the reason that the Premier has not jumped straight to making Maths compulsory again is simple: She’s been told there aren’t enough teachers available to actually teach the subject if she does. If that’s right then the needed response here is to pour funding into getting teachers on board while still making Maths compulsory so that the downwards spiral can be reversed. Playing around the edges is not going to fix this problem and may make it worse as it masks the problem with apparent activity.

The Premier’s new plan recognises the alarm bells that teachers, universities, employers, and others have been ringing for the last decade. But while recognising the problem, it doesn’t present a real solution. If the problem is that Maths is seen as difficult and not scaling well, then the solution is clear. To make it less difficult you need good teachers who understand the subject and are passionate about teaching it. And to make it scale well you need to make it compulsory.

Teachers are the key. I do believe that making Maths compulsory is both logical and necessary in our modern World. But that in itself is not going to be enough. To facilitate that happening we need to both grow and import qualified Maths teachers – and we need to do it quickly. You don’t arrest a death-spiral with a plan that will only come to fruition after you’ve hit the ground. Clear, decisive action is required – and I’m afraid the current plan is not that.

Picture/graph credit: Actuarial Eye

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