We are not the clever State when students are fleeing from maths and science

girlsmathsscienceWe are not the clever State. There, it needs to be said. The number of students we have doing maths and science for the HSC is declining at an alarming rate; so fast in fact that we’ll soon be lucky to have anyone left who can read the graph. This is scandalous.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald summarises the situation nicely; but the stats are even worse when you look at the figures behind them drawn from this excellent paper which details the decline in students taking harder maths, or any maths, and concludes:

Together these analyses raise serious concerns for maths and numeracy standards and for STEM education and industry. In particular, the declining participation rates among prospective teachers are deeply concerning, with the potential to create a vicious cycle of declining engagement with maths in New South Wales schools.

A big part of the problem appears to be students ‘gaming’ the system to achieve higher university entrance scores at the expense of an education. But this isn’t just about maths. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that a decline in participation in maths study is also leading to a decline in participation in other STEM subjects, because maths is an underpinning for almost anything you want to do in engineering, science or technology.

It’s astonishing that 40 per cent of Year 7-10, and 25% of Year 11-12, maths classes are taught by someone who is not a qualified mathematics teacher. This is maths, it’s simply not a subject that can adequately taught by reading a few pages ahead of the students. The reason this happens is because there’s a chronic shortage of maths teachers. It doesn’t take much to see the vicious downward cycle in action here. Poorly taught kids, leading to them dropping maths, leading to fewer maths teachers, leading to…

None of this is terribly new, it just continues to be horrifying in general, and even more horrifying in the face of the political rhetoric about how important STEM is to our future.

What I hadn’t understood in all of this was that:

The examination of maths and science combinations between 2001 and 2013 revealed that much of the decline was found among girls and stemmed from a gradual drift away from intermediate maths (NSW 2 Unit Mathematics course) toward elementary (NSW General Maths) courses or no maths study.

The proportion of girls studying maths and at least one science subject has plummeted, further driving home an already significant gender imbalance. The figures are not pretty anywhere in the STEM subjects. Only 36% of those taking Mathematics Extension 2 are girls. Only  22% of those studying Physics are girls. Only 5% of those taking Software Design are girls. It goes on and on; the figures are poor and the trends are all downwards.

While those figures are pretty damning in any estimation, they are perhaps even more frightening when you consider that 80% of primary school teachers and 58% of secondary school teachers are female. Add in that the bulk of STEM teachers are male and heading into retirement and the prognosis for the future becomes dire.

What can be done? Make maths and a science mandatory – which used to be the case here and is still the case in every high-performing country around the World. And scale the harder maths subjects to make them attractive to those wishing to maximise their HSC mark. And do it now.

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