Poor Australia education ranking prompts soul-searching
In the 1980s, Australia started calling itself "the clever country". Not just a lucky place blessed by minerals, climate and farmland, but a place of innovation and inventiveness, all backed by a sparkling education system.
But an international schools study released this week has fuelled fears that after years of neglect and ill-conceived strategy, the country is steaming towards an education crisis, which could leave future Australians lagging behind the rest of the world.
The quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows Australia's ranking in these subjects has tumbled since 1995, to sit below countries like Kazakhstan, Cyprus and Slovenia.
The study, of Year Four and Year Eight students, shows that since the 2011 TIMSS, Australia has dropped from 12th to 17th for both Year Eight maths and science, and from 18th to 28th for Year Four maths. Its rank in Year Four science was unchanged at 25th. TIMSS studied Year Eights from 39 countries, and Year Fours from 49 nations.
Kazakhstan, with a per capita GDP one fifth of Australia's, ranked well below Australia in 2011, but is now between eighth and 12th in the four categories.
The study, not the first to show educational declines here, has sparked alarm, with many calling it a result of Australians not taking education seriously enough. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham called the results disappointing, while still managing to make a joke of it.
"I don't want to denigrate Kazakhstan, or indeed their artistic skills with movies like Borat," he said, referring to Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy about a fictional reporter from the country.
"I think, though, Australia should be seeking to be amongst the best in the world and declines like this are unacceptable, and that we need to be working hard to turn it around."
The blame game
Critics say the apparent dumbing-down is Australian society's own making, that too much emphasis on pursuits such as sport, and an outdoorsy culture, has long compromised the regard for academic endeavours like science and maths. Since the Australian of the Year award began in 1960, five have been scientists, while 14 have come from sport.
Some blame teachers while others blame governments for not adequately paying teachers. More, however, blame governments and educationists for policies they say have had predictable results.
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In 2001, Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, dropped the requirement for students to study maths or science to graduate from senior high school. Three others among the eight states and territories mirrored that step, while the rest require very minimal study of the two subjects compared with other countries.
"What message does that send to students?" Rachel Wilson, senior lecturer in educational assessment and evaluation at the University of Sydney, told the BBC.
"It's a reflection of Australia not valuing these skills. There's evidence that a lot of students now drop out of maths and science as soon as they can, and that's frightening, because those skills are fundamental in the modern world. Unfortunately in Australia there seems to be a lot of resistance to the realities of the new world."
In a recent co-authored report Dr Wilson said the number of students studying no maths for high school graduation in NSW had trebled since 2001. Before then, more than 98% of high school graduates studied some sort of maths. By 2014, the rate had fallen to 90.7% for boys, and only 78.6% for girls. Though less dramatic, there were also declines in science participation, such as in physics - 24% to 17%.
In a knock-on effect, roughly 40% of maths classes in Australia from Years Seven to Ten were now taught without a qualified maths teacher, Dr Wilson said. Also, university entrance scores to study teaching remained among the lowest.
"England introduced teacher standards tests in 1998 that all teachers had to pass in their first year," she said. "Australia has only started doing that now, and it's still set the bar pretty low."
'Australia needs to do something'
The apparent Australian malaise sparked debate on social media.
Under an article posted on Facebook, Arjun Swaminathan wrote: "Unlike most people here, I don't blame the government or teachers. I blame ordinary Australians and their lack of respect for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. There's a reason why the top classes in maths and science in high schools are full of kids with Asian ancestry and it isn't because their brains are any bigger but because their parents fostered a culture of education."
Sydney parent Rowena Lam said the TIMSS results reflected those of her child, in Year Five in a NSW government school.
"When she did a nationwide maths exam, her results were great," Mrs Lam told the BBC. "When she did an international test, she crashed. Her school had covered only one of the five areas tested. The students who did well all had after-hours coaching. Australia needs to really do something about this."
Highlighting the importance of STEM education in the modern world, Dr Wilson cited a study by Sydney's Macquarie University on the relationship between education and global competitiveness. Economic data from 63 countries showed strong correlations between a country's competitiveness and maths ability (50% shared variance) and reading and science (53%).
Dr Wilson said a major problem was ill-directed funding.
While funding had more than doubled since 1995, it had shown no impact. Australia's funding system was over-complicated by the involvement of both federal and state governments, she said. Hence, funding often did not reach schools most in need.
There had also been greater growth in federal funding to private schools, which have around 40% of students, than government schools.
It was not all doom and gloom, however.
"This country does have the resources to address this issue and turn it around," Dr Wilson said. "We need strong political leadership, with a 10 to 15 year strategy on education, rather than the knee-jerk policy we've had.
"We need to lift the status of teachers in a social sense, encourage people into what is a very noble and rewarding profession, and pay teachers who excel enough to stay in the classroom, rather than become principals or policy-setters."
Recruiting excellent teachers from other countries was another option, she said.
Before retiring this year, Australia's Chief Scientist Prof Ian Chubb also bemoaned the STEM education. Fittingly, perhaps tellingly, he felt it best to use a sporting analogy.
"If Australian science was a cricket team," he said, "you might say we've got a few great players but the team is average."