Chief scientist: Australia’s maths performance going backwards

Chief scientist: Australia’s maths performance going backwards

Something has gone terribly wrong with Australia’s maths performance on the global stage over the last decade – but what exactly?

This is the question being debated as the Government and many educators rush to introduce measures that they hope will boost our students’ performance in what is undoubtedly a critical discipline.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has revealed that between 2003 and 2012, Australian 15-year-olds' mathematical literacy fell in absolute and relative terms.

Similarly, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that in 2011 Australian Year 4 students were falling behind their English and American counterparts whom they had previously been outperforming.

A lack of participation in maths has been pointed to by some as a contributing factor.

Maths is not compulsory at senior secondary level in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, although it is a requirement in South Australia, and to a small extent in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

However, Australia’s PISA and TIMSS performance may point to a more systemic issue, and it is this which has sparked calls for action as to how these trends can be reversed.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, said Australian students’ sagging math performance deserves a broader conversation about what can be done to improve Australia’s performance in this area.
"It's going backwards," Chubb told The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

"Our performance has declined over the period of those surveys. That's not a good position for us to be in."

Chubb suggested better programs be put in place to inspire students in maths. 

"We need to pause, reflect, rethink, reposition and introduce programs and processes which will change the culture and get people to understand why maths is important and how it can be interesting,” Chubb explained.

"It's not difficult if it's taught in the right, inspiring way." 

Brett Hooker, TechnologyOne’s director of R&D, told The Educator that STEM presents Australia’s students with an opportunity to be a part of the ‘knowledge industry’ – something he said will soon be the most significant driving force to our nation’s economy:

“Students who graduate from STEM-related degrees will be the very people driving that development in our economy,” Hooker told The Educator.

“The STEM sector is where Australia’s economic development is going to be in the next two decades.”

Recognising the growth of this sector and the skills associated with it, the Federal Government last year provided $12m towards boosting STEM education, including funding for computer coding and maths summer schools.

The move was followed by the Government’s announcement in January that new primary teaching graduates will have a subject specialisation which could include maths. 

And it’s not just our politicians who are interested in promoting STEM education.

Google Australia announced on Friday that its philanthropic arm,, will provide $1m towards work being done by FIRST Robotics, Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) and Engineers Without Borders Australia.