At the start of the century Anna Bligh was the Queensland Minister for Education. There were slightly encouraging signs that she recognised that the educational standards in the States’ schools were unsatisfactory. However the emphasis was on the easily measured and simplistic issue: the retention rate into Year 12. Sadly nothing was done then, or since, to rectify the problem of poor standards. Subsequent Ministers of Education never showed any real signs whatsoever that they realised how bad the situation was. Even less was there any recognition that the root of the problem lay with the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) who determined the subject syllabi for all subjects for all schools and for all Years.
Now, in the last few months, Ms Bligh, now the Premier, has had the unpleasant experience of seeing two major studies/tests that demonstrate beyond argument that the situation is grave. The Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) showed, yet again, that the condition of mathematics in Australia is weak. For example in Year 8 algebra, variously described in the literature as “the language of higher mathematics” and “a gatekeeper to educational opportunity”, the global average is 500, Australian children scrambled 471.
It is not just that our children are beaten by the “big boys” such as Taipei, Japan, Singapore and Korea, who are so far ahead as to be in a different league altogether, but also by (as a sample), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, England, Hungary, Lithuania and Malta. I stopped halfway down the alphabetical list.
Taking mathematics as a whole, the performance of our more gifted children is embarrassingly feeble: 45 per cent of Year 8 Taipei students reached the “advanced” benchmark. In Australia it was 6 per cent. In the Queensland, the Vacuum State, it was 3 per cent.
The embarrassment of the TIMSS data has been compounded by the results of the National Assessment Programme (NAPLAN). This measured student achievements in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. When the mean scores by the Vacuum Staters are compared with the five other States and the ACT, we find Queensland in sixth or seventh place virtually all the time. Overall Queensland’s students are the weakest of the seven.
The tests also placed the students into Bands of Achievement; the highest band in Year 9 was Band 10. Over the nation as a whole a weak 8 per cent achieved Band 10. For Queensland it was a pathetic 4 per cent. Note the unpleasant similarity between the feeble performance of the more gifted children on the NAPLAN tests and the weak performance of those children in the TIMSS tests. They effectively say the same thing - situation very poor.
These two reliable data sets are no surprise to me at all. Well over four years ago On Line Opinion printed “Wadderloader! Maths and Science teaching in Australia”. In that I raised these issues quite clearly. What has become even more obvious since then is the severe underperformance of (say) the more gifted third of the student body. Some of the inevitable consequences of poor performance in mathematics in lower secondary school are poor enrolments and declining standards in rigorous maths in Years 11/12, weakness in the numerical sciences in all educational stages, and enrolment difficulties for engineering at tertiary level.
It is, I think, a fair question to ask: how bad does an education system have to get, how far down do we have to degrade our more gifted children, how many more tens of thousands of our children have to have their future prospects irrevocably damaged before we recognise that what we have here is systematic, government sponsored, child abuse?
T’was not always thus. Queensland used to be the best. In my article “Strong on the critical and weak in the thinking” that point is well made by, among many others, the Principal of St Augustine’s College in Cairns, when he remarked that “Queensland used to lead the Commonwealth in lower and middle years but is now selling young people short”. He correctly identifies the cause of the decline - feeble syllabi produced by QSA.
In another On Line Opinion article “Floating gently on a waft of edudribble” I demonstrated beyond any doubt that the assessment systems in Queensland used to lead the country but “have now degenerated into a floppy and unreliable mess”. Those assessment systems are a part of the QSA subject syllabi, so the fault again lies with that all-powerful body.
So what is to be done to reduce the damage being done to our children? It has frequently been suggested (predominantly but not exclusively from the Right) that competition and choice would produce improvement. See, for example a recent On Line Opinion article by Scott Prasser “Education must be about freedom of choice”.
That is an attractive idea to some people, but it fails totally for two reasons. First, the authoritative Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAYR 22) from ACER showed that school type has only a very low correlation with final Tertiary Entrance Score (OP in Queensland). By far the greatest influence is literacy and numeracy at Year 9 level (numeracy more than literacy). So choosing a school on the grounds that it is “public” or “independent” or “religious” makes little or no logical sense.