Make Maths and Science compulsory!

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.

STEM Decline

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.

ONE Recommendation

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.


Some Resources:

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

= 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).


8 thoughts on “Make Maths and Science compulsory!

    • Not for me to say Darryl! I am but a humble parent and former teacher. But I certainly was interested in seeing what my Year 11 daughter was choosing, and happy to say she chose a maths and 2 sciences for year 11!

      • I’m not convinced of the need for compulsory maths and science subject selection in the context of the current mechanism for delivery of education/knowledge. I would rather see a rethink of the way we teach, and incorporate the foundational concepts of maths and science as a necessary skill. There have been some interesting ideas in other countries (Finland was one) where subject selection was effectively being superseded by a focus on skills developed through holistic approach using scenarios or projects that appealed to the student. As an ex-teacher, do you have knowledge/thoughts on that?

  1. A comment made when I posted this on LinkedIN :

    “100% agree Charlie. Maths and Science need to be made mandatory for ATAR else we risk going backwards in our educational standards globally (if we are already not behind )”

  2. In a reply to one of the comments above – making Maths and Science compulsory to Year 12 ATAR is not going to solve all problems, but it’s got to be a prerequisite, and reversal of a worrying trend. If I learn to read and write English, it does not mean I will be a journalist. If I learn Maths, I need not be a mathematician in later life. Same with Science. But it grounds me in ways of thinking, solving problems, seeing the world, .. which are going to be crucial in later life. You can specialise later (at uni) – although even there I’d want things to be kept broad before honing in too sharply.

    I also want to make one clear, sensible point. Something that could be done – by parents, students, schools and maybe state educational departments.

  3. Great post Charlie and I agree that well-roundness should be the aim for early education before streaming should occur. Most of the unis in Australia have gone to post graduate medical courses because they are looking for more well-rounded doctors rather than simply grade-scoring machines. Clearly having a basic level of intelligence is a requirement for many professions but technical knowledge is only one aspect of career success and the ability to critically think and be curious and work things out from first principles as well as be able to communicate your ideas and work with others need to also be learned and developed.

    Btw to be pedantic you may be interested in this video about BODMAS and based on your example the answer is ambiguous and could be 1 or -1 depending on how you look at it! 😜

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