Frustrated by stagnating maths and STEM standards, Australian education and policy experts are travelling to China for lessons on how to boost maths and science in local classrooms.
Victoria’s top public servant, Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles, has lead a delegation to Jiangsu to meet with early learning and teaching experts to discuss language, education, and how to improve science, technology, engineering and maths skills (STEM) locally.
Victoria is targeting a 25 per cent increase in the number of Year 9 students reaching the highest level of achievement in maths, and a 33 per cent increase in students reaching the highest levels of science.
Three-quarters of the fastest growing occupations are now reliant on STEM skills, but students round the country are opting out of science and maths subjects in greater numbers.
“The challenges and opportunities facing Victoria are not unique to our jurisdiction,” Mr Eccles said. “Our partnership with Jiangsu has economic benefits but it’s much more than that. Victorians will benefit from the insights gained about education, health, social development, environmental protection and culture.”
Top brass from the state’s Education Department, including DET secretary Gill Callister will visit Nanjing No 1 Kindergarten, which is a bilingual Chinese-English school for preschoolers.
The kindergarten will host Victorian teachers on exchange, while other Victorian teachers will visit Jiangsu over the coming year to learn Chinese approaches to maths and science, both for high schools and tertiary training.
China is regarded as having one of the most effective approaches to STEM education in the world, particularly across the four-city region of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong, where more than one in four students reach the top performance band for maths, according to the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment.
Chinese students recorded an average PISA score of 531 in the 2015 study, compared with an OECD average of 490. Australia’s average mathematics score of 494 has fallen eight points in the past three years, as has its mean science score, which has dropped six points in three years to 510. This is above the OECD average of 493, but below China’s score of 518.
Australian Council of Education Research director of assessment and psychometric research Michael Timms said it was important Australian students stuck with STEM subjects.
“When you look at those figures alongside participation rates of kids — when they get to make choices about continuing on in STEM subjects — there’s trend towards those numbers dropping as well. I think there is a cause for concern,” Dr Timms said.
He said there was more research showing the benefit of starting maths and science young. “Science achievement gaps between high-performing and low-performing students start early and persist over time … early intervention is a good thing, because once a student enters school education and they’re a bit behind, it seems they will always remain behind,” Dr Timms said.
Fewer students are enrolling in STEM subjects in high school and more teachers admit to feeling out of depth in STEM subjects.
A 2015 STEM research project by PwC found Year 12 participation in STEM subjects falling across the country: in 1992-2012, there was an 11 per cent fall in the participation rate for intermediate maths, and drops of 10 per cent in biology, 5 per cent in chemistry and 7 per cent in physics.