Experts say no to maths and science policy

Arts high achiever Isabelle Barlow opposes compulsory maths. Photo Holley Gawne.
With youth mental illness rates increasing, students and mental health professsionals oppose the Coalition's plan to make mathematics and science compulsory in Year 12. Holley Gawne reports.

Isabelle Barlow’s academic CV reads like the checklist of a model student: Acceptance into one of only three accelerated learning programs in Victoria; a 95.9 ATAR; a score of more than 40 in the subjects of English, Media, and Indonesian; a distinction average in her bachelor’s degree at the University of Melbourne.

Yet, when it comes to mathematics and science, “well, would you believe, I achieved the absolutely stellar score of around 30 per cent in Year 11 maths?” she laughs.

Barlow, 21, is one of the young tertiary students opposing the Coalition’s plans to, if re-elected, enforce compulsory mathematics and science for all Year 12 students across the country. It is inspired by results from the most recent Programme for International Students Assessment tests, showing that Australian students’ standards have fallen over the past decade from 15th to 19th in the world for mathematics, and from 10th to 16th for science.

Last year, former Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, admitted he would struggle to implement the idea across every state and territory. But the Coalition has announced mandatory enforcement of these subjects as one of its main education policies.

“So what,” says Barlow, “because I can’t solve algebra equations, I should have had to suffer?”

Psychologist appointments and therapy sessions were as regular as school assemblies for Barlow when she was in Year 12, as she battled Generalised Anxiety Disorder.  She is not alone in this, with Beyond Blue statistics showing that one in six young Australians are currently experiencing anxiety, and one in 16 experiencing depression.

She says that had she been forced to complete maths and science in Year 12, in 2013, she would have experienced a “massive strain” on her mental state in an already turbulent period.

“To be honest, it was a wonder I managed to do so well in the subjects I was good at considering how unwell I was that year,” she says. “It would have been such an unnecessary pressure for someone who was already feeling so much.”

“It would have taken my focus away from the subjects I cared about and I would have performed worse in them as a result, I’m sure. All those hours studying away and tears shed on subjects I have never thought about since? Wow.”

Psychologist and careers counsellor Meredith Fuller, agrees with Barlow that the positives in compulsory mathematics and science are outweighed by the possible emotional consequences.

Fuller says that there are alternative ways for students to cope with day-to-day problems that may require numeracy skills or a scientific knowledge, that do not “exacerbate what is already a really complicated and stressful time”.

“You can employ people to do the maths side of your job for you, you can google questions … I guarantee that technology can fill in the gaps of what you haven’t studied,” she says.

“Look, I understand there needs to be a minimum standard up until say, Year 10 … you need to be able to give people the correct change if you’re working as a sales person, for example. But to take it to Year 12 could be absolutely horrific for those already suffering, and even for those who otherwise had not experienced mental health problems.”

However, Professor Billy Todd, head of the Swinburne University mathematics department disagrees. He says, “numeracy is essential to live in a 21st century world, hence it should be compulsory.”

Todd also says that it essential that today’s students have an understanding of the scientific processes that have helped shaped some of our most used technologies.

“How many students know that their GPS systems rely on Einstein’s theory of general relativity?” he says. “Kids need to know about at least some of these to appreciate the relevance of science.”

However, Fuller is quick to discourage the increased emphasis on left brain-based learning. “Gee, does that mean art and drama should be compulsory at Year 12 too? How would maths and science-orientated people cope with that, I wonder?”

The Coalition says that one of its main motivations for this proposal was the Office of the Chief Scientist’s estimation that up to 75 percent of the areas with the fastest-growing jobs will require science, technology, engineering or maths skills.

Fuller believes that the people who would be affected by the implementation of this policy should have their opinions prioritised.

A Beyond Blue survey found that today’s young people rank mental health as “the most important issue”, when compared to commonly discussed areas such as the environment, education and employment.

Barlow, who plans to pursue a career in languages, says that she, among many other past and present Year 12 students, will vocally oppose the execution of this plan if the Coalition is re-elected.

“It simply can’t happen. I won’t stand for it. It needs to be stopped.”