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Australian schools are in great trouble, and students will continue to slip behind in reading, math, and science unless there is vigorous action from all governments, a new report has warned. It is a threatening picture of the country’s education system, where high school students lag behind global standards, there is increasing inequity and teaching has become a growing unattractive career.

Australia was “drifting backward”, said the editor of the report Geoff Masters, chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research. He said “We neglect these alarm signs at our own risk, unless we can arrest and reverse those trends, we will continue to see a decline in the equity and quality of the schools in this country.”

The decrease in the math skills of students was especially alarming, Professor Masters said. Australia’s decisions in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) an international survey, which pits the world’s education systems against each other- has steadily declined over the past decade.

The top 10% of Australian 15-year-old now perform at about the same level in maths in the top 40-50% of students in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. It coincides with a declining proportion of 12-year students taking up advanced math and science subjects.

Professor Masters said- “This means we will not have the supply of people who are highly trained in science and mathematics that we are likely to need in the future.”

The report comes at a crucial time, with education, shaping up as a key selection issue. The federal government has assured an extra $1.2 billion for schools, and Labor has pledged $ 4.5 billion.

However, the report, which was released, found that elevated spending on education had not led to better results. It said funding required to target “evidence-based strategies.” Professor Masters said, “A drop in results often happens in collateral with increased spending.”

“Money alone is not the solution, but to turn around current biases, we may need more money.”

It also raised attention about the drop in ATARs required for teaching courses. In 2015, just 42% of the Australian students embarking on an educational course had an ATAR above 70.

It is recommended that education courses have become highly selective, and make the bulk of their offers to students with 70 above ATARs. “The world’s highest performing nations in international achievement studies consistently invite more able people into teaching, emerging in better student outcomes,” the report said.

“In some of the world’s highest executing countries, entry to teaching is now as competitive as admission to courses such as science, engineering, medicine, and law.” The Victorian government is considering a similar model to New South Wales where future teachers are sourced from the top 30% of school leavers. Professor Masters said federal and state governments needed to agree to a national action plan to stop these “worrying trends.” He also aims at “passive, creative learning” in schools which does not encourage creativity.

Federal education minister Simon Birmingham said the report backed the coalition’s approach. “The Turn bull government’s back to essential Student Achievement Plan focuses on what ACER has called for, the greater use of resources to target evidence-specified vision,” he said.

“Our once in a generation plan to lift school student accomplishment provides more funds than ever before for Australian schools, however, most importantly, it concentrates on measures that improve student results within targeted and clear action.”

David McNamara Victorian government spokesman said many government actions were addressing concerns raised in this report, including the new Victorian Curriculum which explains coding.

“The government recognize that excellent teaching is the single most important factor for schools in improving student outcomes. It always considers ways to ensure we attract and recruit the best teachers, including, among high attaining VCE students.”

The Australian economy is reliable on the workforce participation and productivity, which in turn is reliant on the quality of the education system. Without access to core competencies, large groups of young Australians are set for lives of disadvantaged, rather than the opportunity. The proportion of top performing Australian students is falling, while the share of students without basic proficiency in math and reading is significant and growing.

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September 7, 2016
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