With this in mind, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced earlier this month his plans to make the study of mathematics subjects compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students.

Pyne raised the matter when he met his state and territory counterparts at an Education Council Meeting, but the plan was rejected by the state education ministers. 

Shortly afterwards, Pyne said he would continue to push for a mandatory maths subject to the end of high school.

“I think it’s fair to say that I have a way to go convincing all the state and territory ministers,” he told reporters.

Opposition to Pyne’s plan was led by the Labor-governed states of Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

“Compulsion is a very blunt instrument and making maths and science mandatory could turn students off the subjects for life,” said a spokesperson for Victorian Education Minister James Merlino.

“We need to build up the maths and science teaching capability in our schools, and make sure we engage students by making these subjects relevant and interesting.”

However, the Education Minister’s Council did agree to work on a national strategy to increase science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education in schools. The number of senior high school students studying maths, science and technology subjects is in decline and this could have ramifications for the manufacturing and research sectors.

At the moment, Year 11 and 12 students don’t have to take maths at all in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia or the ACT.

In Queensland and South Australia they only have to do one term of maths.

The Federal Government is concerned that fewer students are choosing to pursue maths through to the end of their schooling and those who do are getting poorer results. The government has moved to increase the number of primary teachers with maths and science expertise, and now it’s looking at how to keep students engaged with the subjects in high school.

How do Australian kids compare?

In maths and science, an average Australian 15-year-old student has the problem-solving abilities equivalent to an average 12-year-old Korean pupil, according to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results from 2012.

The tests analyse around half a million students from 65 countries and economies (all 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries and economies).

In Australia, 775 schools and a total of 14,481 students participated in PISA 2012.

In mathematical literacy, Australian students came in 17th, behind: Shanghai–China, Singapore, Hong Kong–China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao–China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Poland, Belgium and Germany.

The OECD average for mathematical literacy has not changed significantly between 2003 and 2012. 

Nine countries have significantly improved their mathematical literacy performance over this time, while 13 countries, including Australia, have declined significantly. Australia’s mean mathematical literacy performance declined between PISA 2003 and PISA 2012 by 20 score points on average.

Is making maths mandatory the answer?

According to University of Sydney research by Dr Rachel Wilson, Australia is about the only developed nation that does not make it compulsory to study maths in order to graduate from high school.

The senior lecturer says that not only is Australia an outlier internationally, it is also sending students a message that studying maths isn’t important.

Given that several states in Australia already require students to study mathematics at a senior level, Wilson says it isn’t such a leap to get national unity on this issue. 

“Indeed, if we look back in history, we can see we have much higher rates of participation in maths,” Wilson says.

“Certainly if you go back a decade or two, almost everyone who did the HSC did maths and normally at an intermediate level.  We now have a situation where the majority of people are doing maths at the more basic level, the elementary level.”

RMIT University’s Dianne Siemon, a leading professor of mathematics education, disagrees, stating that while she appreciates the sentiment to get more students studying maths, Pyne’s plan simply isn’t going to work.

“It’s going to mean you’re going to have very unprepared and disinterested people sitting in classes that they don’t wish to be in and making their life intolerable and the lives of everyone around them intolerable,” she shares.

The solution to the problem lies, according to Siemon, much earlier on in the middle years.

“We need to ensure students arrive at Year 11 and 12 much more knowledgeable and confident, so that they’re in a position to freely choose to do these more advanced subjects,” Siemon says. 

Siemon’s research suggests that there’s a very significant range of abilities in students in Year 5 through to Year 9, particularly in the area of multiplicative thinking, which embraces everything to do with more sophisticated notions of multiplication, fractions, decimals, ratios, percentages, and so on. 

“We need a lot more attention in the middle years to the key ideas, strategies that people need to be able to do the maths at that level,” Siemon says, “and this means starting back in Year 3/4 right through.”

Citing research that has come from the Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Programme, Siemon says she can see what can be done when you do target the teaching at multiplicative thinking in junior secondary schools.

“It can lead to turn arounds, it can lead to more engagement, it can lead to students feeling happier about their prospect in mathematics, but it’s a long haul.”

Making the maths curriculum more relevant

Charles Sturt University expert Dr Toni Downes says the curriculum for secondary school mathematics must be made more relevant and interesting before it can be made compulsory. 

The executive dean of education believes the government’s plan to make mathematics compulsory for Year 11 and 12 students will not necessarily increase students’ engagement in the field.

“Obviously we can increase the number of students studying maths and science at school by making the subjects compulsory, however this will not necessarily increase a student’s long-term interest in the field,” Downes says.

“You can’t force a student to be interested in a subject. We should be focussing on making sure the Year 7 to 10 curriculum shows students how maths and science are applicable to a range of careers and how they can apply the skills to real life.”

Downes says it’s important to demonstrate to students how maths can be applied in a real world setting, particularly in the workforce.

“By changing our approach to teaching maths and science in Years 7 to 10, we will have less students entering Year 11 bored, disillusioned or phobic about maths and science,” she adds.

Siemon agrees, and says just by making maths mandatory, we’re not making it any more desirable for students. It’s something that simply can’t be rushed, she says. 

“We need to invest in the programs and the teacher development and the facilities in schools to make sure that everyone has a chance to get there,” Siemon says. 

“At the moment, we’re only really equipping about 20 per cent of students to even realistically expect to complete those more advanced maths subjects.”

What we should be doing, according to Siemon, is increasing the portion of students who have the choice to study it, and at the moment we’re not doing that.

“We’ve got to better prepare students in middle upper primary through to junior secondary and that’s a big investment, both in teacher training and resourcing,” she says. 

What about natural giftedness?

Given Year 12 is so highly competitive, is making maths mandatory going to give students who are naturally gifted at maths an unfair advantage over those who would prefer to study arts, or literature, or languages?

According to Wilson, there’s no such thing as ‘natural giftedness’ in maths.

“There are students who have been taught maths well and who are attaining well in maths because they’ve had good foundations in early childhood and good teachers in primary,” Wilson shares.

“It is true, we find people in high schools, definitely in upper high school, who have fallen seriously behind so for them, the challenge of doing maths for high school is a big one.”

A prevalent view in Australian society, according to Wilson, is that you’re either good at maths or you’re not.

“This makes us very different to east Asian societies where they feel that you succeed in maths if you work hard at it. This attitude has been shown through a lot of educational research to be highly productive in terms of educational outcomes,” she says.

Citing research in genetic markers that was conducted last year, Wilson says that the genetic markers associated with mathematic abilities are the same as the genetic markers associated with reading ability.

“Now both of those are not natural skills, they are skills that are learned, but the genetic markers of them are shared and this stands in contrast to a lot of prevailing views that you’re either a maths person or you’re an arts and literacy person,” Wilson explains.

“In fact, it suggests that everyone is both a maths and literacy person, so those sort of societal views are exactly part of the issue here, and I do believe we need policy leaders to make a shift there.” 

While the challenge may be big, Wilson says she doesn’t believe it is an insurmountable one. 

“The important thing is we maintain participation and some sort of learning, moving forward in maths skills and that we have a society which understands the essential role of maths within the world that we live in now and of course our economy,” Wilson says. 

In contrast, Siemon says a genuine reason for deciding to discontinue with mathematics in Year 11 and 12 is that there are simply too many other options out there. 

“Until universities actually start valuing and requiring some of these more sophisticated maths for their engineering or maths degrees or whatever, then why would students choose them?” Siemon questions.

“Students are going to maximise their ATAR and they’re not going to take on something that’s a bit more challenging, if they’re going to risk that.”

What about teacher engagement with mathematics?

Earlier this year, the Federal Government decided that from 2016, student teachers will need to pass a national literacy and numeracy test before being allowed to graduate.

The government will also insist primary school teachers specialise in a particular subject.

The moves are part of a bid to lift teacher quality after a government-appointed panel found “significant pockets of objectively poor practice” in education courses.

While there is a requirement for NSW primary teachers to complete general maths, many early childhood and secondary teachers are maths-free, yet are expected to teach numeracy. 

Wilson believes many future teachers will disengage from the subject and develop a maths phobia that prevents them from using maths in their teaching. Thus some of the new generation of teachers may unwittingly set up a vicious circle of diminishing numeracy skills within our society.

“My colleague, professor John Mack, and I have documented the decline in maths participation amongst teacher education students. We saw a tripling of the number of [people who didn’t]  study maths, who were then moving into teacher education degrees. Over 12 years those numbers tripled. The number in intermediate maths halved, as did the number in advanced maths – those are really concerning statistics,” she shares.

Wilson adds that if we have people who discontinue their studies of maths in Year 9 or 10 who then go on to become teachers,  then they’ve been sent a message that maths is not a core element of education and that will be reflected in their teaching when they get into schools. 

Siemon says she’s quite open to upping the standards of teacher education programs, but it’s important to remember that maths is not about just understanding how to differentiate or integrate or how to work with trigonometric functions – it’s about understanding the maths and its concepts on a much deeper level.

Downes believes sparking a long-term interest and passion in maths and science is the key to increasing the number of professionals in these areas.

“There is a shortage of teachers trained in maths and science in regional Australia and in order to address this shortage we must ensure that the curriculum is interesting and relevant enough to sustain someone’s passion long after they finish school,” Downes says.

“We must also ensure that students who have become disillusioned with maths and science in earlier years are given ample opportunity to re-engage and Year 11 and 12 subjects could be the opportunity to do this. Therefore, the challenge is to design a relevant and engaging curriculum for all secondary school years.”

So, in conclusion...

Addressing the decline in mathematical literacy is a complex one, and according to Siemon, there’s no one solution.
She says it’s not about making more people study mathematics, it’s about allowing people to truly enjoy the subject and understand it. 

For secondary students, Siemon says it’s important to create a state where they realistically have the option to choose a harder level of maths for their Year 12 studies. 

“You can’t just do that overnight. It’s just not fair to those people who are in Year 10 now who would be told they have to do maths in Year 12 and it’s stopping them from doing the thing that is the love of their life in art or literature or biology or something and they’re going to hate doing it. You have to give people some lead time so they can build towards it,” she says.

Wilson says the modern trend of moving away from maths needs to be redressed quickly to ensure Australia is educationally competitive on the global stage.

“At the moment it’s leading to a big hole in our national capacity,” she says.