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Education slipping away by degrees

Australia is in the grips of some serious soul-searching after slipping down the rankings

Gulf News

When things don’t work out, finger point. Anywhere. At someone or something. Just point. After all, finger pointing is one of our earliest conditioned responses.

In our defence, due to the structure of the human body, it is easier to point at something rather than turn the wrist at an awkward angle and aim the finger at one’s own chest. It’s too much trouble and, despite the wrist being moderately flexible, it can attain amazing rigidity when one points the finger at one’s self too often.

Therefore, it’s a lot easier to run with the ‘He did it. She did it. He is to blame,’ index-finger-outstretched approach. Which is what’s been taking place in Australia, which thought itself relatively well-placed in the rankings for science and mathematics among school pupils the world over. As it stands, with the recent results released, Australia has slipped ten places — from 18 to 28 — in Year 4 mathematics, out of 49 countries while the Year 8s regressed from 12th to 17th. The top four countries in Year 4 math are Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Chinese Taipei, in that order; in Year 8 math it’s Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong.

Right, ho hum. Nothing astonishing about that list of top achievers. We can all go to sleep. Ah, but hang on a minute, Australia. Hang on. Take a closer look at that list. At both lists, while you’re about it. Note very carefully the country placed 12th in Year 4 maths and 7th in Year 8 maths. Yes, of course. Rub the eyes in disbelief and look again. That’s right, ha ha. It is that funny old place that gave us a belly full of laughs not too long ago, thanks to the now-universally known Borat. Yes, of course, it’s Kazakhstan.

Spotlight on Aussie system

While the world’s been having a good old dig at their expense it would appear that they’re having a bit of a laugh now. Although the tone of this column may come across as a tad satirical, the truth is, this result in particular has turned the spotlight back on the Aussie education system. Desperate finger pointing is taking place. Attention is drawn to the fact that while Kazakhstan’s GDP stands at $10,546 (Dh38,735), Australia’s is more than five times that figure, at $54,718. This government and the former one are trading accusations relating to funding — improper funding, that is.

‘Ripping money out of schools’ is one quote, and ‘Robbing children of the opportunity to reach their full potential’ is another. One social media comment on this subject draws our attention to the fact that Kazakhstan is one of the few former Soviet republics where the economy did not collapse and where the investment in youth is ‘truly astonishing’. Another comment maker reminds us that the teaching profession is respected in Kazakhstan. As a former teacher myself I would be curious to know where Australia stands vis-a-vis a survey on respect for the teacher/teaching.

I do know this, however. Motivation is one of the primary drivers in a classroom. All results, all outcomes are the eventual result of motivation, or the lack of it. We can blame a hundred different things or people until we are blue in the face, it really won’t bring about a solution. Get the right kind of motivation going — between both pupils and teachers — and it shouldn’t be long before Australia achieves a turnaround. Easier said than done, no doubt. But we might start with doing away with the notion that you must have a degree (a Masters or beyond) to teach Year 4 math. My belief is that you really need — yes, to know your maths — but above that, to have the personality and the drive that will make pupils feel they want more, and more. Anyone who can make a student come back to the well of education thirsty, seeking to drink more, they are the ones I’d employ first... we’ll discuss the prestigious degrees afterwards.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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