Dear reader, before we forge headlong into another new year with all its promises and possibilities, let us extend the space and perspective gifted to us this time of year to ponder an unpleasant fact.
Your typical Year 11 and 12 in WA may not take a Maths or a Science subject.
Not only that, the trend is going in the wrong direction. But before I get to this, I need to take you back in time, and give you some international perspective…
The UK, Singapore and Australia
It is well proven that economic growth derives from investments in education, science and technology.
For 13 straight years, I taught Economics, Maths and Business subjects to IGCSE and A-Level (in the UK), then the International Baccalaureate (in an international school in Singapore) and finally Economics and Management (at TEE level, the forerunner of ATAR) in an independent boys’ PSA school in Western Australia.
I am now a parent of two secondary school age children.
This perhaps affords me a unique international and personal perspective on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects to Year 11 and 12.
As for the IB Diploma, a full ATAR course requires 6 subjects, but does not stipulate any required subjects, beyond taking English. The best 4 results are then used for uni entrance, which means you can bomb out (or even drop altogether) 1 or 2 of your 6 subjects and it does not affect your ATAR score (which is a ranking of all the Year 12 results in WA in order – the top student(s) will score 99.95. In 2017, 16 students managed this).
Under the IB Diploma though you cannot drop any subjects and still graduate with a diploma. In the UK, you can’t drop an A-Level and still expect to go to a university.
Everything matters. An important lesson one might think.
IB’s all-round strength
Comparing the three systems I have taught in, I can state categorically that the IB diploma provides a far superior all-round education (as compared to someone doing 3 A Level subjects or ATAR). I am not alone in that view.
IB students have to choose a Language & Literature subject, a Maths, a Science, a Humanity, a second language and an Art subject… choosing 3 at a Higher Level, and 3 as Subsidiary for the full diploma. You might do 5 hours of study in a Higher subject a week, and 3 in a subsidiary, plus home work of course.
IB diploma students also take ‘Theory of Knowledge’, a fantastic grounding course in culture, psychology, ethics & law… how we know things to be true, or not. Plus, students write an extended essay (a research thesis) in one of the main higher subjects, and have to do a certain amount of recorded ‘Community, Action and Service’ activities – such as sport, travel and community work.
The end product is a highly well educated, holistic graduate, ready for what the world or university has to offer.
The school I taught at in Singapore produced some of the highest IB results in the world. Half the world’s IB diploma students that graduate with a perfect score (45/45) are from Singapore. The pass rate in Singapore is 98% (globally it’s 80%).
Coming from this to teaching TEE in WA, I felt the educational standards were lower than in Singapore, even though I was teaching at one of the top boys’ private schools in Perth, 80% of whom go on to study BComm at UWA.
Wind on a few years, and I was shocked to discover that recent trends show a declining number of Maths and Science being studied in WA, with a significant proportion of students studying neither subject area. This something I’ve blogged about before.
To recap: the average number of science subjects taken by Year 12 WA students declined from 1.41 to 0.66 between 1986 and 2012. (Report: Optimising STEM Education in WA Schools, TEAC/ECU, 2013). That’s halved!
The average number of maths subjects taken declined from 0.92 to 0.69 between 1992 and 2012. That’s 50% down.
The reports also note that there is also a lack of STEM qualified teachers (too often teachers are teaching out of their training area just to get someone in front of a class), and we don’t even have a database of what qualifications STEM teachers currently have. If you don’t measure the problem, you can’t manage it.
Just think about this. The average year 12 student does not even take one maths or one science subject. If you randomly chose 3 students, perhaps you’d see 2 Maths and 2 Science subjects between them.
In other countries, such as one of our closest neighbours Singapore, students record among the best results in maths and science globally. There is serious investment in education and a drive (by students and parents) to get the best results. It’s embedded in the culture, and in many ways Singapore, with few natural resources (land, minerals, food, water…) to speak of, has had to invest in its people to survive, and thrive. Despite this disadvantage, Singapore’s GDP per capita is above Australia’s. In 1980, Australia’s GDP per capita was twice that of Singapore.
It’s a global marketplace… even in Perth
Our current and future year 12 graduates are moving into a globally connected, super competitive world of work. They will not only have to compete with each other, and unseen millions in other countries, but also with technology such as AI, that may be able to do their jobs quicker, cheaper and faster.
Of course, there will be well paid jobs in the future in our State, but these will go to the most-rounded, grounded, bright young things who can show that they can work in teams, show initiative on their own, handle complexity, communicate well and design and solve problems. From wherever they come from.
To think that many WA school graduates will not have a grounding in Maths or Science is worrying. STEM pervades everything, (or STEAM or ESTEAM or whatever you want to call it). It will be the building block. It will be necessary, but not sufficient.
Stop the Chicken!
As I have learnt in life, you get what you reward, so be careful what you reward.
If uni entrance is determined by the best 4 of pretty much any 6 ATAR subjects you can muster together, then you can bet parents and their children will pick whatever seems easiest to game the system. And they do.
We have to stop this short term ‘chickening out’ to less academic ATAR subjects at Years 11 and 12 to merely boost the ATAR score and ‘play the uni entrance game’. Everyone who goes through the last 2 years of schooling should spend at least 1/6th of their time on Maths, and 1/6th on at least one Science subject. That’s not a lot to ask is it?
I am amazed I even need to argue this. Other countries make it so, the IB makes it so. We will be left behind in the global marketplace, and we will not be doing the right thing for our children and our state either if we look the other way on this one.
Another disturbing factor is that those in lower socio-economic areas are even less likely to follow maths or science through to school end. We are developing a divide in society where the better off students will have access to more STEM subjects, will do better at them, all because of the postcode they were born and grew up in. This has to be wrong.
Therefore, I make one simple proposal – make Maths and Science compulsory through Year 11 and 12. Parents, I am talking to you!
This is above politics. I am not criticising or proposing changes to government policy. Yes, some people will ignore my call. People don’t like change, especially if their little cherubs are involved. But sometimes, with right on your side, you can make the argument.
- Transforming STEM teaching in primary schools, Prinsley & Johnson, Dec 2015
- Optimising STEM education in WA, TIAC, ECU, 2013
- Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West? Hogan, D; The Conversation, Feb 12, 2014.
Answer to question posted above:
9 – 3 / 1/3 + 1
The division (BODMAS*) is done first, so 3 divided by 1/3 = 9
= 9 – [ 3 / 1/3] + 1
= 9 – 9 + 1
* brackets, operations, division, multiplication, addition, then finally subtraction
And the Cup? well, you got that right? I love Maths forever (as the square root of 16 is 4).