The maths puzzle we need to solve: our girls trail the boys - Grattan Institute

While most Australians would agree that reading and writing skills are important, there still seems to be an undercurrent of thinking that numerical proficiency is an optional extra. But as our societies and economies become more technologically sophisticated, maths matters more than ever.

Just as worryingly, there is a lingering tendency to believe that mathematical competence is innate – that some people are blessed as being naturally “good at maths” while others are not.

The implication of this way of thinking is that high-quality teaching, opportunities for learning, and student effort have little to do with achievement. This is not true.

Mathematics is a learned skill. Effective teaching in the classroom, including frequent opportunities for students to practise and receive feedback, are essential to improving proficiency.

Because maths matters, and because students can achieve mathematical success if they are well taught and put in enough effort, the fact that Australian girls persistently lag behind their male peers is deeply troubling.

Grattan Institute’s analysis of the 2021 NAPLAN data found that the maths learning gap between boys and girls is already apparent in early primary school. By Year 3, girls trail boys by about two months of learning. By the time they reach Year 9, the gap has roughly tripled, with girls falling about seven months behind the boys.

The OECD’s international PISA assessment in maths also reveals a persistent gender gap in the average scores of Australian 15-year-olds. Fewer girls than boys meet Australia’s PISA “proficiency” benchmark for maths, or perform at the top levels on the assessment.

While the differences aren’t huge, the gender gap has been stubbornly consistent over time.

But not only do Australian girls lag behind boys in achievement, they are less likely to believe maths is important for their further study, and less likely to have confidence in their own mathematical ability.

These factors can be self-reinforcing, with lower achievement dragging down confidence, leading to further disengagement from the subject and worse performance over time.

Clearly, we need to take the gender gap in maths seriously. Research to date has failed to uncover any compelling reason to think that there might be an innate difference between the mathematical ability of girls and boys. Given our broader progress in tackling gender inequality, girls’ persistent underachievement in maths is especially frustrating.

But if we focus solely on the maths gender gap in Australia, we risk significantly underestimating the size of the real challenge facing Australian girls and our education system.

The biggest problem facing our girls is not that they lag our boys by months, it is that they lag girls in the world’s top-performing education systems by years.

To secure the future of the next generation of Australian women, we need to improve the way we teach maths.

Compared to Singaporean girls, who are among the best performers according to the OECD’s PISA assessment, Australian girls are more than two and a half years behind in their maths learning, on average. Australian girls are much less likely to reach Australia’s PISA proficiency benchmark in maths – almost half of Australia’s 15-year-old girls fall short, compared to only one-in-five girls in Singapore. Fewer than one in 10 girls in Australia excel on the PISA maths test, compared to one in three in Singapore.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a clear commitment and a concerted effort from Australian governments, significant improvement is possible.

Making sure the maths curriculum is sufficiently rigorous and systematic is an important first step. Mastery of the foundational components of mathematical knowledge, along with sufficient procedural fluency, is necessary for children to succeed as the discipline progresses. Just like learning a new language, or developing prowess on the sporting field, the study of maths requires plenty of opportunities for sustained practise and feedback.

But the harder, and arguably even more critical, challenge is to find ways to ensure every primary and secondary school maths class is led by a teacher with the mathematical content and curriculum knowledge, explicit teaching skills, and preparation time required to teach effectively.

As the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has shown, there’s an urgent need to reduce the proportion of out-of-field teachers taking maths classes in Australian secondary schools and to boost teachers’ mathematical content knowledge. Grattan Institute research highlights the need to attract more high achievers to teaching; improve the way schools recognise, reward, and deploy subject-specific teaching expertise, including in maths; and make more time for teachers to focus on effective classroom preparation. Implementing reforms that address these issues will go a long way to helping our girls – and our boys – catch up to their overseas peers.

A focus on closing the stubborn maths gender gap in Australia risks selling our daughters short. We need to set our sights much higher.

Australian girls deserve every opportunity to be among the best mathematicians in the world.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

While you’re here…

Grattan Institute is an independent not-for-profit think tank. We don’t take money from political parties or vested interests. Yet we believe in free access to information. All our research is available online, so that more people can benefit from our work.

Which is why we rely on donations from readers like you, so that we can continue our nation-changing research without fear or favour. Your support enables Grattan to improve the lives of all Australians.

Donate now.

Danielle Wood – CEO