Gonski review: Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt on Australia’s problem with science education

Australia cannot afford to fall behind its neighbours on science education. Lab science career

The Gonski review on school funding is made public on Monday. But how does the division of resources between the government, independent and Catholic sectors affect how students learn in the practical sense?

Common sense would appear to dictate that in fields like science, the better resourced schools can offer students better facilities and equipment, and thus a superior learning environment. But is it that simple?

The Conversation spoke with Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt about the state of science education in Australian schools and what impact the Gonski review can have on ensuring all students get the possible opportunity to learn.


Are there issues regarding the funding of schools that create major inequalities of opportunity for students in terms of accessing the facilities and infrastructure needed for science education?

The primary thing we require are competent teachers across the board. And so the inequality comes to those people who for whatever reason end up with a teacher teaching a science or math who are not qualified to teach in science and math, whether it be at secondary or primary level.

We know the NSW government has admitted for example that in math a fifth of their students are not actually being taught by qualified people and that is presumably similar in other places.

The cliché is that a government school in the western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne will not have the same facilities as private schools in the wealthier suburbs which are better funded. How important is the infrastructure question in terms of teaching?

The infrastructure is honestly secondary compared to the skill of the teacher. The teachers do need to have budgets and some infrastructure - and the higher the level, the more important that is - but the primary thing in my reading of the situation is the skill of the teachers.

*What are some concrete measures that Gonski could recommend on Monday that will go some way to alleviating this? How do we practically start to fix the problems, rather just focus on the need for better teachers? *

The most important factor in good science education is quality teaching rather than fancy facilities. AAP/Alan Porrit

The first thing to do is assess the skill level of our teachers and do our best to skill up those who are on the margins.

The schools are competing for people who have degrees in science and math and there are a lot of jobs for these skills - so I think ultimately it is going to require making teaching more attractive to (attract) these highly skilled people.

We need to change the way our dip eds, our education for teachers is done so that it really does have a stronger math and science spin to it than it does currently.

In terms of time scales, Gonski will make his recommendations on Monday but we won’t see results results anytime soon. This really is a generational change, isn’t it?

It is a big change and it is a hard change and we shouldn’t underestimate that. This is not an easy thing to fix and it is something that will take ten years to implement and get teachers through, but the benefits will last for 50 years.

Can you describe Primary Connections and the work you have done there?

One of the easy places to have a pretty profound effect is skilling up our primary teachers. These teachers do not need to have special skills in math and science but they still need to be skilled in teaching the curriculum.

Primary Connections works on professional development of teachers so they can successfully teach the curriculum. It provides innovative techniques that are shown to work with kids and get them interested.

This is a pretty quick fix and so from my perspective this program was facing termination so I put the $100,000 Nobel prize money towards it to give it a lifeline but also to indicate to Australia how important this program is and provide the academy with some ammunition to get support from states, private institutions and ultimately the Federal government again.

In an international context is Australia falling behind our competitors in terms of the maths and science skills students leave secondary schools with?

Our competitors are of course changing so the best indication is looking at the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) results which are done out of the OECD which show Australia is scoring reasonably well, but not nearly as well as Singapore, Korea, Finland and New Zealand.

The flow-on effects of not doing well in those tests are going to happen 20 years downstream when those kids hit the workforce. We don’t want to take the risk of being mediocre. We are one of the richest countries in the world, why should we be mediocre in our education when the OECD says that is the best way to make a country rich?

Finally then what is the international best practice? Obviously Singapore and Finland are wealthy, although not as wealthy as us and neither is New Zealand. What are they doing that we could potentially learn from and feed into the Gonski review?

Reading the OECD reports which is my source of knowledge indicates there are a few commonalities, one of which is that highly skilled teachers are important and that is more important than for example class size.

Equity across the country is important too. That is, instead of concentrating education in a few little places it is really important to have equity across the nation. Having individual control at a school level seems to be good. That is, you just don’t do a blanket rule and enforce it across the nations exactly.

You tailor things a bit. You give principals some individual control over the programs. The other thing that is interesting and not entirely obvious to me is that if you are a country that holds a lot of students back and make them repeat grades, that seems to do bad things. It is not obvious to me why that would be true but according to the OECD it seems to be true.

So I suspect the OECD report will inform this review but I would hate to be seen to be questioning or trying to subvert the review in any way shape or form. I suspect the review will do a very good job at addressing these things far better than I could as a commentator.