Australia’s Mathematics Dilemma

For quite some time, I have been an advocate for a balanced education system that ensures students have a depth of knowledge across key learning areas. Australia’s push to improve its educational rankings and the need for a strong STEM based curriculum to meet the needs of our current and future economy, have long been touted aims of successive governments.

In 2019, Sydney University rightly thought to raise the bar and encourage more students to study higher levels of mathematics as part of their HSC pattern of study. They did so to ensure students entering STEM degrees would have the mathematical knowledge base needed. Educators applauded the move, however other universities did not follow suit. When I read the news in early March that Sydney University had removed their mathematics prerequisites, it challenged me to think once again about the purpose of mathematics in preparing students for the future and the crisis facing mathematics teaching across our State.

Of course, not every student doing the HSC goes on to university and a STEM based degree, but there was hope that prerequisites would work in raising the bar and encourage a higher number of students to take harder mathematics courses. However, UAC scaling reports since 2019 show that the introduction of prerequisites has had little to no impact on the number of students taking a mathematics course for their HSC.

So why haven’t these numbers increased given the popularity of this University as a destination of choice for students leaving school? One reason according to the University is due to the shortage of qualified mathematic teachers in Australia. In an increasingly competitive student market, Sydney University wants to ensure it does not disadvantage students who don’t have access to higher level courses at their school because of teacher shortage.

In 2018, almost one in four Year 8 students in Australia were taught mathematics by a teacher whose qualification was in an area other than mathematics, compared to 10 percent internationally. The situation has worsened and this year widespread teacher shortages are being reported across the world, particularly in areas such as mathematics. In some areas of Sydney, two thirds of State schools were reporting staff shortages in key areas such as mathematics at the start of the year, and across the State in regional and remote areas, shortages were worse.

Our society depends on our schools and universities to ensure we have a highly skilled workforce able to meet the challenges we face. The missing link has been ensuring there is a pipeline of specialist teachers able to teach higher levels of mathematics, who encourage students to successfully move into STEM based courses at university. While some courses, such as Engineering, Computer Science and Pharmacy at Sydney University still have prerequisites of Advanced Mathematics, we need to keep the bar high and encourage young people to do the highest level of mathematics possible while they are at school. There is no easy answer.

This year, KRB employed a young Mathematics Teacher, Nancy, who has just finished her teaching degree and was offered a Research Scholarship by the Australian Mathematical Science Institute after achieving academic success in her Bachelor’s Degree in Pure Mathematics at UNSW. She was awarded the University’s 2023 Women in Mathematics and Statistics prize. With this level of achievement, we are thrilled that she wanted to teach high school students and is enjoying her first term of teaching this year.

I hope young women like Nancy can see the benefits of educating young people and act as role models to our students about the importance of academic scholarship and having a career in education. We hope over the coming years to find more young graduates committed to making a difference in the teaching of Mathematics and a willingness to take on such a rewarding career. Every child deserves a qualified and passionate mathematics teacher.

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