New science subject pointless without teachers

“The state’s brightest HSC science students will be able to study a more challenging extension subject as part of an overhaul of the syllabuses designed to make the final high school exams more rigorous.” It sounds great doesn’t it? But it’s going to be a waste of time for most students unless the shortage of physics, chemistry and maths teachers is addressed.

The new extension subject will prepare high-achieving students for university and a career in STEM. That’s certainly a good thing, especially in the context of the last few years’ efforts to simplify science in a vain attempt to attract more students. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the new subject is “… is designed for high-performing kids who are outstanding students who haven’t been stretched as much they could be”. The combination of a more rigorous basic curriculum plus an extension subject should in theory go some way towards dealing with the fact that many students are entering university significantly behind their counterparts from other countries.

But it’s all just words unless it’s backed by teachers. The curriculum goes nowhere without teachers. And there seems to be no great announcement about where the current shortfall in physics and maths teachers will be met – let alone dealing with what you would expect to be greater demand for those teachers with a new curriculum.

I keep banging on about this, but I maintain it is a truth: We have systemic problems which lead to inadequate planning and resourcing in our education system. The fixes we put in place are welcome; but, unless we take a holistic view of the issues we face, we are applying band-aids to issues which require massive intervention.

Changing the science curriculum is a great example. The changes need to be backed up by money to train the existing teachers. They need to be backed up by a pipeline of new teachers. When something like a third of students sitting the HSC are taught maths by people without maths degrees and there’s already a parlous shortage of physics teachers, the only effect of a new extension subject is going to be the further demarcation of a two-lane system. A small number of private and selective school will be able to get hold of the required staff, and everyone else will have to continue in the slow lane.

I know I keep saying this, but we need a plan and we need more physics and maths teachers. Fixing the curriculum is welcome, but without those teachers it is pointless.

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