The latest PISA report shows that Australia’s maths performance has fallen so far that we are now at the OECD average – the first time this has happened in any domain.

Education minister Dan Tehan described the results as “very disappointing”.

“These results should have alarm bells ringing,” he said.

“Australia should be a leader in school education. Our students should be ranked among the best in the world. We should not accept anything less.”

ACER Deputy CEO (Research) and PISA National Project Manager Dr Sue Thomson told EducationHQ that she is worried by the results.

“We've always been significantly higher than the OECD average, I think we pride ourselves on a country that is above the OECD average, but all of a sudden we're not.

“So I think that that, to me, is the big, big story and the big problem.”

PISA results over time

Since 2003, maths literacy has plummeted by 33 points. Reading has fallen by 26 points and scientific literacy by 24 points since 2000 and 2006 respectively, when the domains were first assessed.

This decline is the equivalent to losing a full school year in maths and almost a full year in reading and science.

Only Finland has fallen more sharply in maths performance than Australia. Our decline in reading is the equal-second most severe of all countries, while our decline in science is the equal-third worst.

Five countries whose maths performance was on par with Australia’s in their first PISA assessment have now surpassed us. Nine countries whose initial maths performance was lower than Australia’s now outperform us, while seven are on par with our results.

Compared to PISA’s top performer, China’s grouped provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Australian students are around three-and-a-half school years lower in maths, three years lower in science and one-and-a-half years behind in reading.

“We're dealing with kids, we're dealing with kids’ lives…” Thomson said.

“What's going to happen to those kids when they leave school? What sort of jobs are they going into? There aren't going to be those jobs for unskilled people that there have been in the past.

“So it causes huge problems in terms of societal funding and all sorts of different things.”

Tehan said that strong literacy, numeracy and maths skills will be fundamental to students’ future success.

“The time has come for us to change direction,” Tehan said.

“Next week at Education Council we have the opportunity to make a difference. My message to the state and territory education ministers is this: leave the teacher’s union talking points at home and be ambitious. We have a clear roadmap to implement the reforms that will improve student outcomes and we should be bold and decisive.”

Tehan called on state and territory education ministers to implement learning progressions for literacy and numeracy during early schooling, as recommended in the ‘Gonski 2.0’ report, and to move ahead with embedding the teaching of phonics in teacher training.

“Our school systems also need to de-clutter their curriculums and get back to basics,” he said.

“We should focus on teaching students literacy and numeracy because they are the essential foundations for a successful education, and should be at the core of the curriculum.

“Our Government is providing record funding of $310.3 billion to schools. Money is not the issue because Estonia was the top-performing country in reading and science and they spend half as much money per student as Australia,” Tehan said.

Thomson agreed that enough money is being spent on education and that a crowded curriculum is likely contributing to Australia’s declining results, but said that she wasn’t sure there is anything politicians can do to address the issue.

Since PISA was first administered there have been 10 federal education ministers. None have been able to turn around the steady decline in Australia’s results.

“Perhaps what politicians can do is accept maybe that there is no silver bullet and there is no one solution to solving the problem and [make] a long-term commitment to solving the problem, because we also know it's not going to turn around in two years,” Thomson said.

“I think making a long-term commitment and maybe having a bilateral agreement, that we're going to do these things over a period of years, [that] these are things we need to do to change the system.

“And maybe it needs to be across politics and saying, 'We all need to work together to turn this around'.

“Is that just being just too hopeful? I know, I just felt for a moment like it was just – that was fairytale land.”