Should Maths be compulsory ?

There has been some debate recently on the necessity of making Mathematics compulsory in Years 11 and 12. Carmel Tapley, Education Officer (Secondary Curriculum) in the Catholic Schools Office and former mathematics teacher, gives some insight into the pros and cons of this argument. 

Federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, is putting forward a plan that maths or science be compulsory for all Year 11 and 12 students.

There is a declining number of students studying maths and sciences, particularly higher levels of maths, physics and chemistry. Government groups are worried about the ranking of Australian students compared with the rest of the developed world in mathematics and science.

With a forecast that up to 75% of jobs will require science, technology, engineering and/or maths – STEM skills – we need to have a student body leading to a workforce, prepared for the new future. Also, the country needs trained teachers who can provide the guidance in these important areas.

Mathematics is useful because it can solve the many problems we encounter every day: balancing a budget, checking change, reading our power bill, determining our mortgage, figuring out which phone or internet plan fits our needs and budget – the list goes on.

Mathematical proficiency is expected in a vast number of professions, and mistakes in calculations can cost businesses time and money – and maybe someone's job. The list of careers that require mathematical competence is endless: engineers, sociologists, drafters, bank tellers, economists, stockbrokers, builders, accountants, financial planners, geographers, ecologists, scientists, business owners, to name just some.

It is important that as a nation we are mathematically literate to enable us to make informed and better decisions around policy, resource allocation and future growth and development. We want our leaders to be particularly mathematically savvy as they are making important decisions that impact on our lives.

Lastly, mathematics is interesting. For mathematicians, the accomplishments of mathematics rate alongside the very best of the art and music worlds. The problemsolving techniques and pattern recognition used to solve maths problems are transferable to many other areas. Resilience, persistence and determination are very much associated with mathematical problem-solving.

So should maths be compulsory at a senior level? Susan Close, the education minister in South Australia recommends, “...we need to make it more compelling rather than compulsory. We need to attract students to it rather than students being told it is inevitable.” She says that making maths compulsory may have a detrimental effect on Year 12 completion rates.

Her argument is sound. We want students to enjoy doing maths and feel they are competent mathematicians. All too often we hear, "I was never any good at maths at school." We need our students to see the subject as worthwhile and relevant.

Many students, as they pursue their post school options, find that they have to cram in a maths bridging course, or attempt a subject that involves a level of maths they can't quite manage. And with a growing number of careers requiring a STEM knowledge base – and career options that we can’t even imagine – are we setting our students up for failure if they don’t have a good grasp of mathematics? 

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Carmel Tapley

Carmel Tapley is an Education Officer (Secondary Curriculum) in the Catholic Schools Office and a former mathematics teacher.

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