Unidentified Speaker: Thank you Minister Andrews for that exposition of the importance athletics for the future of Australia. It gives me now great pleasure to introduce the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham. I think I speak for everyone in this room, and I express my excitement in acknowledging the new focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics that has come through the National Innovation and Science Agenda. We particularly commend the Government on its support of initiatives to improve the participation of women and girls in STEM subjects, and its support of academy programs in this area, as well as our Maths by Inquiry. I’m sure that you’ll all join with me in welcoming Minister Birmingham to the podium.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you so very much Professor for that welcome. It’s a real delight to be here with you all, and to be here in particular with my colleague Karen Andrews, the pre-eminent advocate for science in the nation’s parliament; such a strong voice for science and a passionate and wise contributor in that regard. So Karen, thank you. I have no doubt they were wise and important words, and I’m sorry I wasn’t here to hear them before my arrival. I note in the audience Professor Ian Chubb, the former Chief Scientist. We seem to be following each other a little bit this week; I think this is the second occasion where I’ve come to a stage and found Professor Chubb in the audience, or having preceded me on some occasions. Professor Geoff Prince, director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, the leadership of that institute who are gathered here today, and particularly acknowledging Professor Gavin Hale(*), who is no longer with us but who I am told made an enormous contribution to the work that is being launched today and should be remembered in that regard.

It is a real delight to be here for the launch of the Australian Academy of Sciences Decadal Plan for Mathematical Sciences in Australia. Today I want to focus on the problem we face in declining levels of interest and participation in the STEM disciplines generally, by a focus on how we together, with your leadership, can and must turn this around to ensure that we face the challenges over the years ahead.

The National Science and Innovation Agenda announced late last year has given strong impetus to reinvigorate the study and teaching of STEM subjects. From the very early years, programs like Let’s Count, Little Scientists, and the Early Learning STEM Australia pilot, through to STEM summer schools and industry partnerships, encouraging girls and women to engage in STEM disciplines and professions. Government funding, I’m pleased to say, is also enabling the Australian Academy of Science to work with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers. And Karen does not have a fear(*), clearly, so thank you Karen.

We understand that the bell is ringing, unfortunately the Senate has given me a short reprieve from the wonders of what is a very orderly week we’re having in the Senate.

But I wouldn’t want you all to think that I was risking the important challenge of Senate reform by ignoring those bells.

Government funding, as I was saying, has enabled the academy to work with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers to deliver a suite of online resources: Mathematics by Inquiry for students up to year 10 and for their teachers. The launch of this Decadal Plan for Mathematical Sciences in Australia complements fabulously our innovation agenda. It is a most timely measure on your part, as it seeks to help redress the decline in our STEM capacity in this country that has occurred over a number of years. The plan’s objectives being to give all Australian school students access to quality mathematics teaching; to ensure high standards of mathematical sciences teaching at Australian tertiary institutions; to achieve global and local impact in Australian research into mathematical sciences, and to ensure that Australian society is capturing the benefits of mathematics-based technologies.

As Professor Chubb said in his landmark 2014 report, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are central to our future because of their role in securing Australia’s competitiveness in a rapidly changing world. And those objectives that you have laid out complement so fabulously not just the objectives, but the policy we have built around the National Innovation and Science Agenda that does seek to work from the early years through our schools, into our universities, our research institutions, the collaboration required, the business links, and ultimately the tax incentive to get investment, venture capital and uplift for startups.

Professor Chubb also noted this week that, and I quote: more than one-in-two primary school principals surveyed last year said that their graduate teachers could not teach mathematics to a reasonable level. That is a sobering – a most sobering – statement. While the Australian Industry Group research estimates 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge, yet PACER(*) research highlights that one-in-five mathematics and physics teachers is not teaching in that field. Obviously there are a range of mismatches occurring between what we need and what is happening on the ground. As Professor Chubb rightly said, we want teachers with passion who can engage our students, but that – and I quote directly – requires mastery of content, up to date knowledge, and high quality teaching materials, and pedagogy to match.

It’s obvious to all of us, we need inspiring teachers in the early years to engage student early. We need students to be inspired, to want to go on to further study and professional careers, into STEM disciplines, so that those individuals can fuel the new economy – not just fill the jobs of the new economy, but help to create the jobs of the new economy. And while women’s participation is slowly increasing, the STEM sector does remain a male-dominated environment. In 2014, women accounted for only nine per cent of mathematical professorships across Australia, something that we would hope to see change in the years to come.

Late last year the Education Council, which brings together all of the state and territory education ministers with the Commonwealth Minister, endorsed the National Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics School Education Strategy – another decade of strategy from 2016 to 2026. The strategy supports a long-term agenda to ensure students have a stronger foundation in STEM and are inspired to take on more challenging STEM subjects. This includes, importantly, a broader focus on initial teacher training reforms, including the aim of supporting all pre-service teachers to be within the top 30 per cent in their own personal literacy and numeracy capabilities. A most important objective to make sure that our parents, principals, society generally, can have confidence that when somebody graduates from a university with a teaching qualification and moves into the classroom, they have the personal capabilities in their literacy and numeracy standards themselves, before you get to the point of whether they also have the skills and inspirational capabilities to help transfer that knowledge and excellence to their students.

It’s not just, though, in terms of mandatory standards and testing that we’re looking at in relation to activity in our universities to train the teachers of tomorrow. We’re also requiring universities to make sure that new primary school teachers graduate with a subject specialisation, and STEM is the current priority that we’re trying to encourage through the universities there. Such that no longer will those graduating to teach in our primary schools will just have a generalist understanding, but they will be able to work in those schools and provide expertise and specialisation support, whether it is in maths, science, technology, engineering, or foreign languages, or English skills; that they actually step in there and boost the capabilities and the specialist knowledge within those primary school environments.  

Other programs will improve the teaching and learning of mathematics at all levels. These include our maths and science Olympiads, Connect with Mathematics programs, and the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program. Our Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda includes $112 million for initiatives to ensure that many more young people engage and become involved in the critical areas of STEM subjects. These initiatives complement and include a massive open online course – MOOP – to help equip primary and secondary school teachers to teach the new national digital technologies curriculum, ICT summer schools for disadvantaged secondary students, and grants for school leaders to use digital technologies in innovative and engaging ways.

This decade-long plan for mathematical sciences that you have produced and is being launched today has a dozen recommendations, but as the executive summary notes there are three that stand out. The call to universities to reintroduce a minimum of year 12 intermediate mathematics as a prerequisite for participation in bachelor programs, in science and engineering [indistinct]. Secondly, increasing the provision of professional development for existing out-of-field school teachers of mathematics, and increasing the effort to recruit and retain appropriately qualified staff. And finally, increasing the linkages with industry. These are all eminently sensible proposals, and in partnership with the states and territories, schools, universities, industry, parents, students and local communities, it is incumbent upon us all to get behind this plan and to set Australia up for the great challenges and exciting opportunities right here. You certainly have my commitment to take your recommendations and to work with the other sectors and arms of government and governments around Australia to try to achieve the type of reforms that we need to succeed.

I want to conclude with an observation found on a US-based career website. Following a survey of some 200 jobs, it said, and I quote: good news for all you maths and science wizards out there, you sort of own the job market. The top 10 jobs were decided on work environment, income, job outlook, stress levels and other factors, and most of those called for some background in maths and science. The report noted that every year science, technology, engineering, maths jobs rose on the list of the top 10 occupations. It added that some of the jobs that are rising into the top 10 are of course jobs that did not even exist two years ago, and that is the gap that we need to bridge. On the one had we have the world embracing the opportunities of the digital age and demanding those skills in maths and science, while on the other hand our education system needs to work to close the gap and to produce more people with those necessary skills. I have no doubt that the academy’s decadal plan, which I am delighted to launch today, will make a big difference in closing this gap, ensuring we are well-placed to seize the future opportunities that we cannot even fully foresee today. And I am thoroughly committed to working with you on the implementation of key aspects of this plan, and congratulate you on the wonderful work that’s being done.

Thank you so very much.