HSC Maths numbers can’t be excused as percentages

Don’t think that ballooning total number of students staying at school until the end of Year 12 are the cause of the declining percentage doing maths and science. It simply isn’t.

The SMH has picked up on the falling maths numbers and has an interesting article which spends most of its time looking at the increase in students sitting vocational courses. The underlying point is that if you go back a couple of decades most of the students doing the HSC were there with the expectation of going to University – the vocational students having left at the end of Year 10. These days most students remain in school until the end of Year 12 making for a far larger cohort with a higher level of interest in vocational courses.

It’s worth noting that a cursory glance at a piece like the SMH article might lead you to think that the reason that the maths and science numbers are appearing to decline is that the addition of all the vocational students has pushed the maths and science numbers down as a percentage. Nope. The fall in numbers is absolute.

In 1991 there were 4448 students doing 4 Unit for the HSC, in 2015 that number had fallen to 3334. In 1991 there were 15046 students doing 3 Unit Maths, in 2015 it was 8955. I’ll leave it to Actuarial Eye to dig in fully, but clearly this isn’t about percentages; it’s absolute reductions in numbers.

The fact more people are staying at school can explain why more are doing the basic level maths course; it can’t explain absolute drops in those doing the more serious electives.

And while there’s clearly a cultural change that has far more students remaining at school until the end of year 12. We shouldn’t disassociate that from other cultural changes over the same period – like that the advent of technology means there is not a single profession that would not benefit from a decent level of maths and science.

Putting maths and science to one side, this focus on vocational training in high school has unfortunate undertones for me. We should not be looking at high school through the single prism of providing fodder to the mills of industry. Apparently, you’re either choosing courses based on what will maximise your ATAR or on what you’ve chosen your job will be. There’s no sense of simply trying to produce a well-rounded adult. And I say this pointedly because I do not believe you can claim well-rounded adult-ness without having some understanding of maths and science. Nor while we’re at it do I believe you can be a successful hairdresser, plumber, or anything else without a reasonable level of maths.

Basically we should not be using school to start specialised job training. Schools should provide everyone with the basic education they need to operate in the modern world.

Although, apparently, BOSTES does not share that view: Even among those intending to go to university there is value in vocational training summed up in a quote from BOSTES’ Paul Hewitt:

Hospitality is extremely popular and many students use those skills for getting through university. Many will be baristas or work in restaurants, so it’s a very smart decision.

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