Australia’s dismal school results state-by-state
Robert Bolton

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has admitted the PISA results for her state are disappointing and defended a series of reforms the government has kicked off, including a review of the whole curriculum.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said she looked forward to receiving the NSW Curriculum review’s final recommendations early next year. Louise Kennerley

Maths results in NSW fell to 489 points in 2018 from 494 in 2015, putting the state at the No. 5 position behind Victoria, the ACT, Queensland and Western Australia. The ACT increased its PISA maths score from 505 to 515.

NSW spent $18.1 billion on school education in 2016-2017, the latest available figures. That was nearly $5 billion less than Victoria, which achieved 496 points in PISA maths.

“PISA tests the way students apply their learning and it is clear that our curriculum is currently lacking in this regard,” Ms Mitchell said.

“Earlier this year we saw the interim report on the NSW curriculum review, which indicates the need for a substantial shift in the way NSW students learn. I want to see a curriculum that provides a stronger foundation for students so that they can engage in deeper learning.

“We know that other jurisdictions have seen positive results from a back-to-basics approach and these are reflected in their PISA rankings. I look forward to receiving the NSW Curriculum review’s final recommendations in early 2020.”

In science, NSW dropped to 496 points in 2018 from 508 in 2015, continuing a downward slide that started in 2006. It put NSW third from the bottom among states and territories, close to Tasmania and the Northern Territory, both on 481.

Reduce the number of teacher training institutions to half a dozen and rethink entry requirements.

— Fiona Muller, Centre for Independent Studies

Only 55 per cent of NSW students attained the Nationally Proficient Standard in maths, and there were 21 per cent more students in the science “low performance” category.

The state also weakened in reading, and now scores 493 points, down from 539 points in 2000. South Australia and NSW were the only states to record a drop in reading ability.

NSW education officials said one of the problems was the “crowded curriculum”, which meant teachers had too many things to deal with in the classroom.

They also rejected the data showing government schools do worse than Catholic and independent schools, saying the PISA results did not take account of the socio-economic status of families at non-government schools.

Sue Thomson, deputy chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, which is responsible for PISA, said it was important to look to the states that had done relatively better for ideas about improving education.

Victoria had not shown such a big decline in maths and science as other states, she said.

The ACT was the lead performer among all the states and territories, even though its average performances in reading, maths and science were all down.

Director of the education program at the Centre for Independent Studies, Fiona Muller, said the solution to many education problems was in teacher training.

She said there had been all sorts of education innovations in the past 20 years but the latest PISA results showed few were working. It was time for a radical change in the way teachers themselves were taught, she said.

“I would reduce the number of teacher training institutions to half a dozen and rethink entry requirements. We need to make sure we know where the weakness is and do some real collaboration to set high standards for initial teacher training.”

Robert Bolton is the AFR’s education editor. He covers primary and secondary education, universities and training. He was a Washington Correspondent for ABC radio and later Chief European Correspondent. He presented “The Media Report” on Radio National. At The AFR Robert has worked as markets editor, Perspective editor and was editor of the Friday Review section for ten years. Connect with Robert on Twitter. Email Robert at rbolton@afr.com

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