The importance of high-quality early education in setting children up for lifelong learning is well known but when it comes to mathematics, it is equally obvious Australian students are falling significantly behind.
One of the main reasons for Australian students’ poor performance has just been revealed – some students are unable to recognise numbers higher than 10 or to write letters of the alphabet when they start primary school.
New research, which shows students are unable to do simple addition or read basic words when they start kindergarten, highlights just how important quality early learning is.
The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has found that students starting primary school with lower literacy and numeracy skills may have contributed to Australia’s poorer performance in year 4 mathematics in international tests. As the ACER’s Sue Thomson says, the findings underline the importance of providing all children with consistent access to quality pre-school and early childhood education to tackle inequity in later years.
This may not be surprising to many. The late University of Sydney academic and education reformer Tony Vinson revealed in 2006 that some children started school with no idea of what to do with a pen, paintbrush or book. At the time, Professor Vinson argued that funding for preschool education needed to double to help children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, develop a foundation for lifelong learning.
As we report today, only 53 per cent of Australia’s year 4 students attended schools where more than a quarter of their peers started with the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need as a foundation for their primary education. This compared with 80 per cent of year 4 students internationally.
The Grattan Institute’s education program director, Jordana Hunter, explains there is also a need to support primary school teachers with professional development including practical coaching from maths specialists. Helping improve their confidence and skills would improve the quality of teaching in the classroom. It would also deliver a pay-off in later years.
The chairman of the University of Sydney Centre for Educational Assessment, Professor Tom Alegounarias, suggests maths may need to be taught in greater depth at an earlier age to keep up with higher-achieving countries including Singapore and China. Moves to de-clutter the NSW curriculum should provide teachers with more time to concentrate on maths.
Other cultures incorporate more substantive learning into early childhood activities but some academics are cautious about giving up time for play.
Addressing problems with maths education in primary school would also help address inadequate standards in secondary school. Increasing performance-based pay at the top end of the profession could also help attract more high achievers into maths teaching.
The NSW government has recognised the need to improve the quality of teaching from kindergarten to year 2 as part of its plan to overhaul the entire school curriculum, aiming to give teachers clearer direction, and less discretion, in how to teach literacy and numeracy.
The government is also setting targets it expects individual schools to meet in literacy and numeracy. It says these results will help it provide extra support for the schools that most need it to lift the performance of students.
Scholarships are also being offered to help attract more specialist maths teachers into the profession. Whether these incentives are enough to attract the brightest and best into the teaching profession remains to be seen.
The Herald believes consideration should be given to raising the salaries of the most experienced and accomplished maths teachers to make them competitive in a knowledge-based economy. Only then can we expect to turn out the sharpest maths brains of the future.
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