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Ideas for Australia: Why is Australia falling behind in maths, science and literacy – and what can be done about it?

Education standards in Australia are slipping. from www.shutterstock.com

Ideas for Australia: Why is Australia falling behind in maths, science and literacy – and what can be done about it?

Education standards in Australia are slipping. from www.shutterstock.com

The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series will examine, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.


There is no doubt that Australian education standards are slipping. International tests show that Australia has either stagnated or declined in maths, science and reading literacy.

At the recent Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD director for education and skills, referred to Australia’s poor performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and warned that the country’s previous ranking as a high-equity and high-quality education system was in jeopardy.

Australia is falling behind

The overwhelming story presented by international assessment data is one of an education system in decline.

Scores in all international studies are either stagnating or decreasing, while many other countries have proved to be doing significantly better than Australia.

Of concern is that much of the change in the scores for Australia is associated with a decrease in the proportion of top achievers – those students in the highest proficiency bands in PISA, for example.

However, of equal concern is the students that the system is failing – those students in the lowest achievement bands.

Our international scorecard

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CC BY-ND
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The low achievers

Australia needs to do better in capitalising on the talents of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. At present it does not.

By far the largest proportion of low achievers come from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students predominantly attend government schools.

These students are not illiterate or innumerate. Rather, they do not have the level of knowledge that will allow them to participate as productive citizens in a modern society. These results are reflected in TIMSS and PIRLS results as well.

Figure 1 Proportion of students failing to achieve baseline level by socioeconomic background, PISA 2012. Sue Thomson/ACER

Non-cognitive outcomes

Other outcomes of education contribute to Australia’s under-capitalisation on all students’ talents.

Students from a disadvantaged background are much less likely to report that they enjoy mathematics, are less likely to recognise its importance for their future, and are more likely to suffer from maths anxiety than their advantaged peers.

Disadvantaged schools report more problems with resourcing and student discipline; have fewer confident teachers; and have less of an emphasis on academic success. All of these factors are associated with poorer performance in reading, mathematics and science.

What needs to be done?

If Australia is to reverse the decline in maths, science and reading literacy achievement, funding needs to be targeted to programs in schools that have high numbers of students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds.

OECD research has shown that the systems that have been most successful in reducing the gaps between low and high achievers are those that direct more resources to schools in this way.

Schleicher made explicit that:

“Australia’s needs-based Gonski reforms, with increased investment in teacher training, were a positive step but that more commitment was needed.”

Targeting programs that focus on intervention in early childhood areas is particularly essential in closing achievement gaps as early as possible.


You can read other articles in the series here.

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