A Special Decline

Adam Carey has a report in The Age today, on Victoria’s declining enrolments in Specialist Mathematics. Which is quite the puzzle. After all, if an “advanced mathematics subject” is a prerequisite for tertiary studies, and if on top of that the subject is well constructed and offers serious and interesting mathematics, then student numbers should be very healthy. Oh, wait.

Anyway, not to worry, since there are two very hopeful signs. First of all, Carey’s report points to the Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal Plan for repairing the mathematical sciences. True, we’re already seven years into AAS’s ten-year plan, with no sign yet of a bumper crop. And true, AAS were the guys who teamed up with ACARA to sell ACARA’s new curriculum. But obviously it’ll all come together in the next three years. Or, there’ll be a new decadal plan. Or something. It’s the Australian Academy of Sciences: they obviously know what they’re talking and talking and talking and talking about.

The second hopeful sign is VCAA’s brand new VCE curriculum. Obviously, the increased emphasis on CAS, and on SACs, and the introduction of algorithmics and pseudocode, will simply stun any prospective students. We can just see Specialist numbers going through the roof. Or through something, anyway.


UPDATE (10/01/23)

Mr. Big has sent us a hilarious SMBC cartoon by Zach Weinersmith. We wish we could reproduce the whole thing, and especially the 2nd last panel. Go read it. it’s great.

47 Replies to “A Special Decline”

  1. Re- creating my notes for the new course has made me realise how much more I hate it…

    How can you have a subject that leads to engineering courses without dynamics?

    They are slowly removing any bit of fun that was in the course…

    1. Dynamics was slyly attacked and eroded by the curriculum writers over a 20 year period. It started with the deletion of moments of inertia (torque), then the deletion of coefficient of friction, and then … deletion.

      This is VCAA’s hamfisted way of trying to attract more girls to Specialist Maths – Get rid of dynamics because girls dislike it (so I was told). So much for wanting more girls to enter engineering … Maybe the universities will follow suit and also get rid dynamics.

      I’m very happy that proof was added to Specialist Maths, but not by deleting dynamics. The statistics crap (at least the hypothesis testing part) and pseudocode bullshit should have been deleted. And I’m white-hot angry with the vague study design statement that proof can come from any context (including 4-5 lessons of Unit 1/2 graph theory).

      Worm, you ask “How can you have a subject that leads to engineering courses without dynamics?” Easy. VCAA doesn’t care. It assumes that universities will add it to the remedial mathematics syllabus already offered (because most students entering first year mathematics do not have a sufficient mathematics background).

      1. Hamfisted is correct. If this is truly VCAA’s attempt to “attract more girls to Specialist Maths”, I think it rather insulting.

    2. Worm,

      Perhaps consider tutoring IB High Level Mathematics and/or Physics for a more well rounded and less CAS driven curriculum.

      Steve R

  2. The girls in my school that I think would be good at specialist maths don’t choose it because they are looking towards medical areas so they choose biology. Here in SA students only do 4 proper subjects in Year 12, along with a research project. The girls do 3 science an 1 maths, whereas the boys, looking towards engineering choose 2 maths and 2 science, skipping biology.

      1. YES
        Year 10, when they are choosing they have had little experience of the breadth of maths. It’s too early to close off opportunities. I’d rather they did the research project in Year 11 giving them the ability to do 3 science and both maths in yr 12.

    1. For context, a link to the SACE Specialist Maths Exams:


      I wonder how many questions will be used for the 2023 VCAA Specialist Exams.

      Re: Carey article.
      The decline is much worse than stated in Adam Carey’s article. There were 5,711 Specialist Maths students in 2005, so the decline is 32% since 2005.
      What we need is an ego drain – from ACARA, VCAA, … Because the brain drain from our education authorities happened over 20 years ago. The conclusion of the article is salient:

      ““[Engineers] often tell me [(Engineers Australia’s chief engineer Jane MacMaster)] that they’d like to give something back by taking up teaching, but they are put off by the lengthy process of becoming a qualified teacher.”

      Hello ITE and vit.

      Decline in enrolments, decline in qualified teachers, decline in results. And the clowns that caused the decline are being asked how to fix it. THAT’S the problem.

    1. You mean the Examination Reports? That’s very funny, Terry, thinking that the Reports would be available any time soon. I know for a fact that the performance data was available to schools mid December 2022. But it will be many months before the Reports are published. VCAA has never given a satisfactory explanation for this extensive delay. There are probably several links in the chain, and you only need one weak link …

      1. @JF: I was referring to the data on which the above graph is based. I guess that it would be called “2022 satisfactory completion of VCE units”.

        1. Oh, you mean the VCAA “grade distributions for graded assessment” documents. I’ve attached 2021 for specialist. Don’t try to find it on the VCAA website – mission impossible. Much easier to do a simple internet search (using your preferred search engine) to find it and those for other years. For example, 2005:

          Click to access specialistmathsga05.pdf

          (found using Google and the search string “vce specialist maths grade distribution 2005”)

          2022 won’t be available for a while and will appear without fanfare. Carey might have contacted VCAA (or had a source) and asked for the 2022 enrolment data.


  3. I do wonder how much of this is due to the stronger Mathematics students realising that IB HL Mathematics is really the only way to go.

    Does anyone have enrolment figures for that in Victoria?

    Probably a bit difficult to obtain, but would be an interesting comparison.

    Not suggesting that this is the major cause of SM enrolment decline, but I would also be surprised if it was not a factor at all. Maybe “hopeful” is a better word than “surprised”.

    1. Yes, RF. I think it could be a factor. But we’d need to see the IB data from 2017 onwards (or indeed from 2005) and see whether there was an upward trend or whether it was static. I think the comparison could be interesting.

      Given that many students play the ‘scaling for ATAR’ game, it does surprise me that the numbers are dropping in Specialist. I have seen many weak students do Specialist and end up with a scaled score of high 30’s and low 40’s. Which they’ve been very happy with (often it’s actually their best subject after scaling).

      I think the main reason is that less schools are offering Specialist. Because less teachers are willing or able to teach it. Students in lower years are simply not being nurtured and there is an implicit discouragement to doing it.

      1. It is a difficult one – a “good” Specialist teacher may be able to turn a 25-study score student into a 28-study score student over the course of a year and with the heavy scaling, this is quite something. Unfortunately, if the exam is crap, a mid-30s student can turn into a high-20s by virtue of the fact they did not understand one of the questions (this has been discussed at length, so I won’t repeat here).

        Some schools, it seems, have multiple SM classes. I can only imagine how much it would burn a teacher out more quickly to have a combined units 1 to 4 class or perhaps not even have a SM3&4 class every year (and not knowing until very late in the year whether it would happen or not).

        Methods numbers surely are not immune from this decline, especially if we look at them as a percentage of total VCE enrolments (there is a summer project for someone…)

          1. 15,345 enrolled in Maths Methods in 2022 according to (see p11) this source:

            Click to access VCAAMediaGuide2022.pdf

            This is roughly half the number enrolled in Further in 2022 and down from
            15, 881 enrolled in 2021 (15,882 in 2020 and 16,104 in 2015). The trend is clearly downwards, but not as rapidly as for Specialist.
            (I suppose we can thank (most of) the universities for keeping Maths Methods as a prerequisite for things like Engineering etc)

            Meanwhile, Further Maths enrolments are increasing steadily:
            30,340 in 2015
            31,744 in 2022
            a nearly 5% increase.
            (One might wonder what the impact of Foundation Maths will be).

            1. I suspect not a lot of change at Further 3&4 (which I must start calling General 3&4 before the end of January 2023…)

              I do think quite a few students who traditionally may have had a go at General 1&2 and then not continued may stick with Foundation through units 3&4, but we will really need to wait and see.

      1. I would also assume very little but if IB HL Mathematics enrolments are holding steady it means the issue is the subject itself, not the difficulty of said subject. Perhaps.

        1. Sort of. If you do IB you’ve already signed up for a serious program. So, HL wouldn’t be threatened by a general dumbing down. But *of course* the issue is with the subject. It is garbage.

          1. I have no doubt that the subject Specialist Mathematics 3&4 is a problem. I’m not sure it is the only problem of great significance and, at times, I’m not even sure it is the dominant problem.

            Specialist 1&2 was (and to a smaller extent in the new study design) a decent subject. Way better than Methods 1&2 in so many ways, but students are not choosing Specialist 1&2 in great numbers either.

            So, putting the nature of the subject aside for a moment, how much of this decline can be attributed to the quality of the experience in 7 to 10 Mathematics? A lot I would suggest.

    2. RF,

      Lucky IB students can also consider doing IB SL Mathematics ( in year 11 -Anticipated) (NO CAS) and focus on your other 4 classes in year 12 to hopefully scoring a total nearer to the 45 you need for a 99.95.

      Steve R

  4. Can anyone suggest what might have happened in 2018? It appears that there was a big decline in enrolments in SM4 – and other mathematics subjects.

  5. Unforgivable is that so called extended questions are plain BORING.

    And are dumbed down ( a.k.a. scaffolded)

    All types have too many errors.
    And they don’t pay enough compared to silly Further.

      1. Which is harder to earn: raw 50 in further or 40 (39?) in specialist.
        Both scores moderate to 50.
        I think the latter.
        So i would propose that 50 in specialist goes up to 60. 40 to 55 and so on. Fairer playing ground
        And pls, let each of the extended problems be a mathematical adventure

        1. Re: Scaling.
          I think the scaling in Specialist and Further already provides a reasonable difference:

          50 –> 50
          40 –> 38

          50 –> 55
          40 –> 51
          (see attached 2022 scaling report)
          I think a 40 in Specialist is no ‘harder’ to get than a 50 in Further. (In fact, I’d argue that getting a 50 in Further is probably harder). And I think the scaling difference between a 40 in Further and a 40 in Specialist is reasonable.
          Particularly when these days the Further Maths cohort is filled with students much stronger than the traditional cohort for which the subject was created (a cohort which VCAA abandoned long ago, to its eternal shame). What would happen to the scaling of subjects such as Latin and Hebrew … (Personally I find abhorrent the whole concept of scaling and ATARS and what it does to student subject choices. I blame the universities for this).

          Re: “let each of the extended problems be a mathematical adventure”.
          You mean that the questions are purely mathematical with none of the absurd dross that VCAA dresses them up in, right? Similar to the NSW exam questions, right? (I hope so!)

          VTAC scaling-report-22-23

  6. To be provocative, does it matter that the number (and percentage) of students enrolled in Specialist Mathematics (SM) is declining?

    Some people say that, by not choosing SM, students will cut off some future options (e.g. X). There would be few examples of this (if any) because universities tailor entry requirements according to demand. Even so, a student has the right to decide not to do X in future.

    Others will say that the world is becoming more mathematical, and therefore we need more students doing SM to cope with this changing world. In my view, that is a non sequitur.

    It has been noted that declining enrolments in SM will reduce the number of schools that can offer the subject. (This is true in Art as well.) But this is not a concern of students or parents.

    1. Let’s take your provocation to its logical conclusion: Numbers have declined to zero and this continues. Does this matter? Ball in your court, Terry.

      (And I can take your provocation much further. You’re smart enough to guess the route of the provocation bus. Don’t blame the driver, you’re the one who jumped aboard).

    2. You have a theoretical point, but your point quickly evaporates. You have to ask *why* numbers are declining. You have to ask *why* students and parents don’t care.

      1. In some cases, parents seem to think that students have more “choice” these days (whatever that means – choice in post-school options or choice in what they study in their final year of school?)

  7. While enrolments in SM4 have declined over the last few years, enrolments in Further Mathematics 4 + Mathematical Methods 4 have been fairly steady and account for just over 92% of VCE enrolments. I don’t know how many students took both. I guess that Mr Sunak would be envious.

  8. Specialist Maths (and English Lit) is not quite at this stage. Yet. But it makes one wonder:

    Certainly not because of a lack of relevance! But again we see the comment that the subject is “difficult”.

    Enrolment numbers in Australian Politics have been below 200 since at least 2015. So this story is at least 8 years too late. And VCAA and schools appear to have done nothing to try and save it.

    Typical VCAA (and indifferent teachers and schools) – let the patient get sicker and sicker and then euthanase as the final solution.

    There is a changing culture – more and more students want the easy option. VCAA (as well as many schools) are enabling this change.

    Sorry for the boring bit –
    Enrolment numbers in Global Politics are healthy(er) but volatile:
    2021 – 1894
    2020 – 1660
    2019 – 1720
    2018 – 1940
    2017 – 1951
    2016 – 1977
    2015 – 1723
    2014 – 1438
    2013 – 1561
    2012 – 1860.

    1. Is the difficulty of the subject really the point? Or is it the suckiness of the subject? Fewer than 200 students is pretty weird.

      1. Fewer than 200 since at least 2015 is \displaystyle really weird.

        I’m relying on a sample size of 1 that the subject is difficult. I don’t know whether the subject sucks. It could be a reflection of the subject sucking in lower year levels. I’d conjecture that the ‘Don’t care’ factor is pretty high by the time students get to Yr 11 and Yr 12. It’s not seen as having anything new to offer in VCE, particularly since it’s competing against other subject options, because it’s been done to death in the lower years …?

        Maybe there’s a shortage of specialist Politics teachers and so it’s not taught well? Forget about bringing in the Engineers to save Specialist Maths. Bring in the politicians to save Australian Politics – Merlino, your VCAA needs you! Jeff, time to give back what you took from Victorian education.

        What’s strange is that I think interest in Australian politics is at an all time high among young people. You’d think that the subject could somehow leverage this … (Imagine if schools got together with their students and tried to form a genuine micro-party based on issues that the students felt passionate about …)

        Change the scaling and watch the numbers rise … (This was done with languages when the Govt decided it wanted more students to study a second language. Scaling is sometimes used as a political tool for social engineering.)

  9. I think it has a lot to do with the general decline of the junior cohort. My school used to have a s*h course counselling process and let students choose whatever they like. As the result, I was dealing with MM students who were struggling with fractions. We fought hard to implement a more robust approach with recommendations from junior teachers (year 9 and 10) prioritised. We could see the downwards trend in the numbers. I had to advise many kids to do both MM and General just in case they couldn’t cope with MM. I had an excellent female student who learns Maths for her sake of learning but refuses to take SM. And teachers are also an issue as well as not many are comfortable teaching it (especially with the new SD). Some poor 1&2 classes leads to the huge drop for 3&4. I had to talk about scaling for the study score to my year 10 class to give them some kinds of perspective. I have a 1&2 SM class this year with 10 kids (1 girl) but I have taught many of them and know them well. And the first time I am quite happy and confident they are all potential 30+ materials which is great to work with.

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