The recently released results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) confirm yet again the significant and systemic decline in our nation’s education system. The decline is not merely statistical; it reveals that our students are not being equipped with the essential skills required for independent living, let alone for global competitiveness.

PISA serves as a diagnostic tool, offering a global snapshot of students’ abilities to apply knowledge in reading, maths, and science. Australia first participated in 2000. A perceived improvement this year is misleading, as this is only because some other countries have declined even more sharply than us – we have not improved. Our results are as worrying as ever, revealing a sustained decline in Australian students’ reading, mathematics, and science scores. Translating these scores into ‘years of schooling’ further emphasises the severity of the situation, with Australian students falling significantly behind their regional peers, and behind Australian students who sat the test 20 years ago.

This downward trajectory is grim. Despite ever-increasing education budgets, and the billions already spent, Australian students are overall now more than a year behind those Australian students who took the test in 2000.

Specifically, Australian student scores in mathematics declined from 524 points in 2000 to 487 points in 2022. This is equivalent to students being approximately 16 months of learning behind where they were in 2000.

Scores in reading declined from 528 points in 2000 to 498 points in 2022 – equivalent to students being more than a year behind where they were in 2000. And scores in science declined from 527 points in 2006 to 507 points in 2022 – equivalent to students being ten months behind where they were since Australia first participated in that test in 2006.

Shockingly, the 2022 results show that half of our students failed to meet the minimum standard in maths and 43 per cent failed to meet a minimum standard in reading. Compared to our Singaporean neighbours, our students are fully four years behind in maths, and two years behind them in both reading and science. Our percentage of ‘high achievers’ has also declined, with only 12 per cent compared to Singapore’s 41 per cent.

Who, or what, is to blame for this system-wide failure? The National Curriculum is the prime culprit. With its obsessive focus on identity politics, critical race theory, and green ideologies, it is moulding our children into barely literate social justice warriors and, in so doing, denies them the skills they need to survive, let alone compete, in the modern world. This wilful negligence of the fundamentals is producing a lost generation, and amounts to a scandal of historic proportions.

It is not good enough for the politicians and teacher unions to, once again, downplay the latest PISA results and pretend they don’t matter. It is an ethical imperative to address this crisis immediately.

Contrary to the mantra of education unions, the solution to this crisis does not lie in even further funding increases. Increased funding alone does not guarantee better education outcomes. Wholesale reform is required. The National Curriculum must be fundamentally reformed, and initial teacher training overhauled.

States need to provide leadership, wresting control of their schools back from Canberra and making sure parents are front-and-centre of their children’s education. The highly centralised control of the education system by politically motivated bureaucrats in Canberra has been utterly discredited and must now be abandoned. The focus of curricula must shift to ensuring that students are adept in core skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics. Evidence-based teaching methods must be implemented, with all traces of ideological political activism eliminated.

The way we teach our teachers also requires urgent attention. Research by the Institute of Public Affairs has established that in Australia today the equivalent of just 10 weeks of classes across a four-year Bachelor of Education degree – less than one semester – is dedicated to the teaching of core literacy and numeracy skills. The university sector that trains our future teachers offers 3,713 critical social justice subjects compared to just 371 subjects focused on core mathematics, phonics, and grammar skills. Little wonder our children are nosediving down the international league tables of academic proficiency.

Australia’s students deserve nothing less than a world-class education. Only through intensive and decisive effort to prioritise skills acquisition over political agendas can we hope to reverse our educational decline and equip future generations for success. The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated.

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Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow