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A weak State in a mediocre performing country

By John Ridd - posted Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Laws exist that punish commercial companies if they engage in false advertising. Recently a large electrical goods manufacturer was in trouble because their energy efficiency claims were demonstrably false.

If the Australian and Queensland governments were businesses their claims to be “the clever country” and the “smart State” would result in false advertising charges being brought against them. The truth is that in maths and numerical science Queensland is a weak State in a mediocre performing country.

Draft National Curricula exist for Maths, Science, English and History. It is an opportunity to improve the condition of Maths and Science in Queensland. Detail of the new syllabi may be, and implementation and oversight of it will be, a State issue. Ultimately the syllabi and the assessment systems that finally go to the schools must meet the minimal criteria: defined, validated and reliable. The ideas/concepts/techniques to be learnt must be defined. The outcomes must be reliable and validated by predictable and just methods.


In trying to do that in the interests of our children the Queensland Department of Education, the Minister, the government, the Opposition - Parliament as a whole - will have an onerous responsibility. They will be friendless. To that end they will need to do two things:

• work to improve the suggested syllabi where possible and try to prevent any weakening of those syllabi that may be proposed by the extremely reactionary but hyper powerful Education Establishment - the Boards of Study (our QSA), Faculties of Education and the QTU; and
• work out the best way to organise, assess and oversee the implementation of the syllabi in Queensland schools. That is entirely within the power and responsibility of the Minister for Education and the Education Department.

The State’s actions need to be in the light of the following facts all based on sound research:

  1. Maths in Australia is weak. Queensland children are even weaker than the Australian average.
  2. The performance of more gifted students in Australia is scandalously weaker than those in strong countries. (On the Trends in International Maths and Science Study, TIMSS, 40 per cent of students in Taiwan reached the “Advanced” standard, in Australia 6 per cent and in Queensland 3 per cent.)
  3. In Algebra, the “gateway to educational opportunity”, Australian performance is below the global average. (Global 500, Australia 471).
  4. ACER data confirms the well known fact that secondary school maths standards in Queensland have declined by two years learning in the last couple of decades.
  5. These acute problems exist across the whole State and in all school “types”. Hence the problem must be systemic and the cause must lie within the only group that has power over every school - the Queensland Studies Authority QSA and its lamentable predecessor the Queensland Schools Curriculum Council QSCC.
  6. Apart from NAPLAN there has been no proper assessment or collection of validated data up to Year 10 exit in Queensland for a quarter of a century.
  7. Currently Science up to Year 10 exit is essentially non numerate, is entirely descriptive and hence is an hopeless preparation for the numerical sciences in Years 11-12. This item, plus the above items 2-4, are the biggest causes of enrolment and performance problems in rigorous Maths and Physics in Years 11-12.
  8. All subject syllabi in Queensland are unusable by the average class teacher because they fail to make clear what is to be studied. The teachers’ job is to teach, not syllabus detail construction. That is the job of a central authority and is what they are paid to do. An aside: if a syllabus is not clear then some book or another will de facto become the syllabus; that is an observable fact. The weaker the teacher, the more guidance is needed. Obviously.
  9. In Years 9 and 10 for both Maths and Science and in both government and non-government schools allocated times varied in a 2:1 ratio. While learning is not directly proportional to teaching time, it is inconceivable that time allocation has no effect on outcomes. Concern in both Queensland and Tasmania that time is lost to “sports carnivals, excursions and other special events” resulted in Tasmania determining that schools must build an 20 per cent allowance in timetabled time to allow for “interruptions to classroom time”.
  10. Literacy and Numeracy are the biggest determinants of final OP, unemployment rates and future incomes. (Numeracy > Literacy). Items (9) and (10) indicate that the State will have to determine and where possible enforce minimum time allocations.
  11. There is always a huge range of ability/mental maturity within each annual cohort of maths students. By age 11 achievement levels vary from less than seven-years-old to over 16 years. By Year 8 age there is the complete range of Piagetian development stages.
  12. Schools use a variety of methods to deal with pedagogic problems that arise from that variability. A fashionable trend has been to ignore the problem and use mixed ability classes. Other approaches are Grouping, Streaming, Setting and a form of linear programmed learning all “crossed” with Year 10 only; Year 9 only; Years 8, 9 and 10; one semester only; and Years 9 and 10.
  13. The National Curriculum de facto advocates mixed ability “at least to Year 9”.

Noting points (2) and (3), Queensland authorities should attempt to ensure that the syllabus provides a challenge for all students.

Once the syllabi are accepted Queensland will have to put structures in place to implement them.


Without some degree of oversight there will be no evidence that the new syllabus is being followed. There will be reluctance/reactionary behaviour to implementation especially in Years 8 and 9 where currently little new work is done.

In addition to a modicum of oversight there has to be some system of assessment. That system must be transparent so that all students, parents, society at large and parliament itself know how well our children are progressing.

NAPLAN is better than nothing (it was the clarity of the results that exposed how weak we have become). However, NAPLAN would be seriously deficient as the only assessment up to Year 10 exit. Another additional system is needed if the opportunity to rectify the issues in points 1-3 is not to be missed.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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