Examining the health of social science education in primary and secondary schools across the Country.
What we’re doing well, where we’re falling behind, and priorities for the near future.
Why social science in school?
A rich, high-quality social science education at school is fundamental to ensure that individuals understand and are able to participate meaningfully in a democratic society. For some students, the social science education received in school will be their only formal encounter with these subject areas. It is therefore vital that schools provide the best possible learning experience for students to gain knowledge, skills and passion for social science subjects.
In the Australian Curriculum, the social sciences are taught alongside humanities subjects, under the title Humanities and Social Sciences, or HASS. From the beginning of school to Year 2, students are taught History and Geography; Civics and Citizenship are added in Year 3; and Economics and Business in Year 5. From Year 10, social science subjects in the Australian Curriculum change to Ancient History, Modern History, and Geography, but states have authority to set their own curriculum, so the offerings of core and elective subjects in social science vary significantly across states and individual schools.
Quality and relevance of social science school education
Lack of high-quality, publicly available data about the Australian school system, such as subject offerings, student enrolments, teaching quality or student performance.
- Low student performance in the National Assessment Program Civics and Citizenship tests (NAP-CC).
- Students and families sceptical about social science career prospects.
- Revamped messages to students and parents about employment prospects and relevance of careers in the social sciences.
- Ensure high-quality teaching resources are available in all schools across Australia.
Teaching workforce and infrastructure
School staffing models often result in teachers being asked to teach outside their expertise (out-of-field), as well as to change subjects year-to-year.
Insufficient incentives for teachers and schools to invest in, and develop subject-area expertise in social science.
- Build incentives for schools to support the development of teachers’ subject expertise.
- Improve the quality and accessibility of data about the Australian school system, to support a better understanding of the sector.
Accessibility, diversity and fairness
Stakeholder concerns that social science subject offering and enrolments are declining in senior secondary (further research required to verify these concerns).
- Develop a school ecosystem that prepares all young Australians to live prosperous lives, as free, democratic citizens.
A high-quality school education in social science is critical for:
- Democracy. A strong knowledge base in history, political science, economics, law and ethics is fundamental to develop students’ appreciation for the democratic freedoms and principles we enjoy in Australia, and to cultivate critical perspectives when it comes to exercising their rights and casting their vote in elections.
- Individual and social prosperity. Social science skills in communication, psychology, management, personal finance, or public health, equip students to lead prosperous, fulfilling, and balanced lifestyles, and to cultivate a positive legacy for others and society, regardless of which career they choose after graduation.
- Appreciating education, in general. Anyone who is aware of the former two benefits, becomes privy to the transformative potential of education and, consequently, a long-life champion for excellence and equity in Australia’s education systems.
How good is the social science education delivered at school? Australia’s testing system, the National Assessment Program (NAP), offers only a limited window into the quality of social science education: it only tests one subject, Civics and Citizenship, and is not applied over the whole population of students (only a sample). Considering that, what NAP tests are showing is that student performance in Civics and Citizenship is consistently low. The latest round, in 2019, saw only 53% of year 6 students, and 38% of year 10s achieving proficiency. A definite red flag for value.
Data about the school teaching workforce is spread across different agencies in states and territories, and not publicly available, so an understanding of its current state is limited.
Consulted stakeholders expressed concern that social science teaching is being negatively impacted by a number of issues:
- School staffing practices, such as assigning teachers to subjects they have little or no expertise in (asked to teach ‘out-of-field’), or changing assigned subjects year-to-year.
- Lack of support or incentives for teachers and schools to invest in subject-matter expertise. In Australia, teachers are required to complete at least 100 hours of professional development every 5 years, but there is no requirement or incentive to undertake subject-specific education.
- Lack of stable and adequate funding for professional development providers. Teacher associations, which could provide subject-specific training, often struggle to secure stable and adequate funding to offer subject-specific professional development programs on a continuous basis.
“The truth is that ‘well-educated people’ or ‘well-read people’ is generally used […] to denote those with a grasp of politics, economics, history, arts and culture, literature, philosophy. Studying the humanities is also associated with achieving leadership roles in subsequent careers. If the school students with a grasp of these things are primarily emerging from independent schools, the likelihood of [other] students achieving success in their careers and being promoted is reduced, extending inequity.“
Representative, state-level school teachers’ association.
What does it take to develop subject-expert teachers?
Personal interest, in teaching a social science subject area.
School incentives and support to undertake professional development (e.g., career progression).
Government support and incentives for schools to invest in teacher training.
School staffing models that support matching teachers’ expertise with assigned subjects.
Student appetite for social science subjects (influenced by parents, industry, government).
Local availability of qualified teachers.
Availability of, and access to adequate professional development opportunities.
Teacher education guidelines and quality assurance appropriately incorporate subject expertise.
School funding policy is conducive to the development of subject-matter expert school teachers.
Development of partnership arrangements with discipline-specific teacher education providers.
In the context of this snapshot, Equity is interpreted as the degree to which a good education in social science is available to all Australians, regardless of location, ethnicity or socio-economic circumstance.
While Australian schools have adopted the Australian Curriculum (up to 80% of teaching time is devoted to the national curriculum), the delivery of social science content can vary significantly across schools. In other words, current school policies and administration are failing to guarantee all Australians will leave school with a high-quality foundation in social science. The issues include:
- Unequal offering of social science subjects across schools, particularly in senior secondary. “In [State], many schools are offering HASS subjects from Year 9 as electives, meaning many students do not do any history, civics, or geography past Year 8”.
- Unintended consequences of a (well-meant) emphasis on STEM skills. In preparation for the technological turn of the century, the Australian Government, as well as some industry sectors (e.g., mining), have made significant investments to improve the quality of STEM education in schools over the years, for example, through incentives to STEM teaching or the development of high-quality classroom resources. The social sciences sector has not benefited from the same effort or resources, and the divide is growing and showing. “The increased emphasis on STEM does not have a neutral impact on the humanities and social sciences. Schools are a balancing act, limited by budget, timetable and space. When you make space for one thing, it has to come off somewhere else.”.
The combination of these factors is reportedly leading to a decline in both the number of social science subjects offered by schools to students, and the number of students choosing to study them, specifically at a senior secondary level (see Losing ground in senior secondary).
The question, to be clear, is not whether a push for STEM in schools is right or not (it is). Instead, it is about whether our education system is giving all students access to a balanced, high-quality education, and the long-term individual and collective benefits that come with it.
As per other aspects of the school education system reported, better data is needed to confirm and adequately understand these trends.
Australia’s public spending in primary and secondary education in 2018
of national GDP
Priorities for action
Revamp messaging about social science opportunities
To improve student and parent confidence about employment prospects in social science fields and their continued relevance in a technology-enabled world. All stakeholders in the ecosystem have a stake in ensuring social science talent is well nurtured at this stage of the education pipeline.
Ensure high-quality social science teaching and resources are available in all schools across Australia
Supported by the right level of infrastructure, investment and incentives at the state and school levels.
Develop a school ecosystem that equips young people to live prosperous, fulfilling lives, and to responsibly exercise their rights and freedoms as democratic citizens
As the new curriculum rolls out in 2022, the sector should look for opportunities to boost student participation and performance in social science subjects, particularly at the secondary level. See Losing ground in senior secondary.
Improve the quality and accessibility of data about the Australian school system
Such as subject offerings and enrolments, staff education and development, and student performance, to support a better understanding of the sector.
Total public spending on primary and secondary education from: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD (2021), Public spending on education (indicator: Primary to post-secondary non-tertiary, as a percentage of GDP). DOI: 10.1787/f99b45d0-en, https://data.oecd.org/eduresource/public-spending-on-education.htm#indicator-chart.