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Is Forcing 'Mathsphobic' Kids To Study Maths A Bad Equation?

The NSW government is making maths compulsory up until Year 12, but some experts warn the plan could hurt disengaged students and already stretched teachers. 

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said her government will incorporate maths in NSW schools from Kindergarten until the end of the Higher School Certificate (HSC).

The plan has attracted mixed reactions from experts in education and psychology, with some cautioning whether mandatory maths will suit all students.

It's part of first overhaul of the state's curriculum in 30 years that includes a sharper focus on maths, english and science and how they apply to the "real world".

Mathematics will soon be compulsory for students in year 11 and year 12. Image: Getty

Berejiklian said she wants to ensure students are prepared for jobs in the future.

“We promised to take the curriculum back to the basics and today we are taking the first steps to deliver on that commitment by prioritising maths," she said on Thursday.

"My vision is for every child in NSW to have the necessary maths skills to succeed in life, whether that’s managing home budgets or preparing them for the jobs of the future in science, technology and engineering.”

Currently, maths is only compulsory up until year 10 in NSW. This plan would extend that to year 11 and year 12 students, but there is no indication how it will be implemented.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell told the Sydney Morning Herald it will not involve forcing year 11 and year 12 students to take maths as a unit of study for their HSC, "nor will it necessarily count toward their ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank)".

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Maths experts such as Professor Jacqui Ramagge, head of Sydney University's school of maths, have welcomed the plan, but warned the implementation will be key to its success.

"I don’t know what the future holds but I do know it will be increasingly quantitative," she told 10 daily.

"If we are going to prepare our children for success then we need to be ensuring everyone has the appropriate skills to succeed."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she wants every child to have the necessary maths skills to succeed in life. Image: AAP

Marilyn Campbell is an education professor from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who specialises in psychology.

She's the media spokesperson for Australian Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools (APACS), which provides support for more than 1,000 members in school psychology, educational guidance and counselling.

Campbell said without marked changes to the curriculum, the plan may force students to work above their capabilities -- particularly those who suffer from "mathsphobia".

"We know there's a sizeable portion of kids who are anxious, and some who are very maths anxious," she told 10 daily.

"To make all students do something that perhaps you need more of a predisposition to be able to enjoy and learn, I think the curriculum is going to have to be changed markedly."

We have to think about the engagement and enjoyment of students at school, so we don't put them off learning.

Karen McDaid, President of the Mathematical Association of NSW (MANSW), agreed engaging students will be a concern, particularly those who dropped maths in year 10.

"To expect students in years 11 and 12 to take on additional units that they're not interested in means they're dedicating time to something that could be dedicated to something else, like the humanities," she told 10 daily.

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But Ramagge strongly disagreed with claims that maths cannot -- and should not -- be taught to all students.

"It's not a question of if everybody can do this; it's a question of whether we as a community want them to and whether we will support them in doing it," she said.

"I think as a culture we have a tendency to think you can't be good at maths unless you have a talent for it.

"But in the same way you can teach almost everyone to read and write, you can teach almost everyone to learn maths."

Experts agreed successful maths teaching comes down properly engaging students.

"Provide them with information and observation that they feel are relevant to things they already engage with, and go from there," Ramagge said. 

Ramagge referred to the teaching style of popular mathematics teacher, Eddie Woo. Image: AAP

Curtin University Professor Eva Dobozy, who specialises in educational psychology, said the current way maths is taught can be "frightening" for many students.

"They believe they're not up to it... and will opt out as soon as they can," she told 10 daily.

"I think this plan is fantastic. But rather than having textbooks in front of students, we need real-life examples." 

'Chronic' Shortage Of Teachers

Experts have warned the government must first fix a shortage of teachers trained in maths, which is particularly concerning for rural or remote schools.

Data from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) shows Australia has been facing a shortage of qualified maths teachers since the 1980s.

A recent AMSI report found three quarters of students in years 7 to 10 are being taught maths by a teacher not trained in the subject for at least one year.

"These teachers are working hard to do their best for kids. But it puts an added pressure on schools to attract teachers at a higher level," McDaid said, urging the government to develop a plan to retrain and develop out-of-field teachers.

Labor spokeswoman Prue Car also called on the government to fix the "chronic" shortage of maths teachers in the state.

"The Liberals need to be upfront with parents -- how are they going to make sure there are enough maths teachers in our schools to ensure our children are ready for the world?" Car said in a statement.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au