Monday, April 04, 2011

Once we knew maths. A trainer's lament.

New apprentices are struggling to pass tests they would have breezed through a decade ago, with skills in maths and physics so poor as to endanger plans for the National Broadband Network according to an industry skills council.

The Electro-Communications and Energy Utilities Industry Skills Council has been testing new apprentices on their starting skills for ten years.

Chief executive Bob Taylor said in the early tests they were not allowed to use a calculator and got an average score of 70 per cent. These says, with calculators permitted after pressure from schools, the average result if 58 per cent.

“These are the sort of things they should know after Year 10, but proper maths is no longer compulsory up to Year 10,” Mr Taylor said.

The questions deal with long division, algebra, trigonometry and units of electrical measurement.

“I have spoken to principals across Australia. Their general response is that it is our problem - we have to lower our expectations... They say they are providing a well-rounded curriculum. But we are being presented with Year 12 graduates unable to complete apprenticeships.”

“In other industries apprentices might get away with having studied vegiemaths as they call it in school, but vegiemaths doesn’t cut the mustard with us.”

Apprenticeships, unlike university courses are open to anyone sponsored by an employer.

“If for example I am an electrician and my next door neighbour’s son wants an apprenticeship, I can offer him a job and the vocational training authority is obliged to take him on, it has no choice.”

“When people drop out of apprenticehips because they can’t do the physics and maths, our system gets blamed, but it is the school system that is no longer doing what it did”

In order to meet the explosion of demand expected from the NBN the council has begun intensive remedial maths and physics courses lasting 8 to 12 months to bring would-be apprentices up to entry level.

“The cost will be paid by the contractor and ultimately passed on to NBNCo,” Mr Taylor said.

NBNCo wrote to 14 contracting firms last week them telling them that after five months and four rounds of tenders the process had been "suspended" indefinitely because all were overpriced.

Communications Minister Steven Conroy said yesterday although he hadn’t been briefed on the decision it was important the NBN get “value for money”

Mr Taylor said it was most unlikely the construction process would achieve the government’s stated aim of employing locals in the regions the NBN went through.

“You can’t pull somebody out of a pub and get them to build the NBN. They won’t know enough to begin. You are dealing with electricity, you need to understand it.”

Mr Taylor was speaking at the launch of a report prepared by eleven skills organisations No More Excuses, which contends seven million Australians have poor reading skills and eight million poor maths skills.

His remarks echo those of former Treasury secretary Ken Henry who lamented that schools had turned away from maths and physics, believing they “afford the luxury of the soft option”.

“Like the study of maths, physics and economics, policy discipline is hard,” he told teachers and students from his old high school. “But it is not too hard. Like those subjects, it is precisely as hard as it needs to be.”

Are standards slipping? Questions apprentices find hard

1. If F=(N x P)/120, what does N equal?
2. An electrician receives a discount of 6 per cent on an account for $1626. How much will the electrician pay?
3. A circular table top has a diameter of 10 metres. What is its circumference?
4. The units of heat and temperature are the same. True or false?
5. A capacitor stores energy in the form of a magnetic field. True or false?
ANSWERS: 1. N=(F x 120)/P 2. $1528.44 3. 31.42 metres 4. False 5. False

Published in today's SMH and Age

Related Posts

. So you think you know about economics

. Andrew Leigh's maiden speech: What is it about education?

. Want a good investment? Get a degree - it's about the best there is