Children can't get enough science lessons
ALMOST half of 12-year-olds have a science lesson less than once a week, even though most think the subject is interesting and would like to learn more.
A survey of Year 6 students conducted for the first time last year as part of the National Science Tests reveals 21 per cent of students reported having a science lesson "hardly ever" while 19 per cent said they were taught the subject less than once a week. Yet three-quarters said they would like to learn more science.
The survey of students' interests and experiences revealed generally positive attitudes towards science.
More than 80 per cent of students agreed science was "important for lots of jobs" and that learning science would be more important in high school.
About 67 per cent agreed it would be interesting to be a scientist and only 40 per cent agreed that "science is too difficult for most people to understand".
But when asked how often they had science lessons at school, only 6 per cent said every day and 54 per cent said once a week, while 48 per cent said lessons were mostly held in the afternoon, when students are typically less alert.
At the same time, the national test results show students' scientific understanding is falling, with the average score dropping during the past decade, primarily among the top students.
The tests, comprising a written exam and a practical task, have been conducted every three years since 2003 among a representative sample of Year 6 students, with about 5 per cent - or more than 13,000 - sitting the most recent tests last year. The results show the average score has dropped eight points since 2006 and while not statistically significant, it continues a trend of declining marks. Changes in the tests between 2003 and 2006 make the results not strictly comparable, but the trend is a drop in the national average of 17 points between 2003 and last year.
The average score of Year 6 students in Tasmania did fall significantly over the past three years, by 20 points.
Lower scores were recorded around the nation, except in Western Australia, where the average score rose 12 points, which is not statistically significant, and in the Northern Territory, where the average rose one point.
ACT students achieved the highest scores, followed by Victoria, which overtook NSW, and Western Australia, which rose from seventh to fourth over the past three years.
Students are also marked against five levels of proficiency, with almost 52 per cent deemed to have met the standard last year compared with 54.3 per cent in 2006. But while about 10 per cent of students scored in the top two levels in 2006, this proportion had dropped to 7.3 per cent last year. The proportion of students in the bottom level had increased from 8.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent.
The difference between the scores achieved by girls and boys was negligible, but indigenous students scored about 100 points lower on average, and about two-thirds of students in remote and very remote areas did not meet the proficiency standard. The difference between metropolitan and provincial areas was small.
Business revolt on parental leave red tape
JULIA Gillard faces mounting pressure from business groups ramping up their campaign over parental leave payments. Business groups want the government to administer parental leave payments beyond July 1 next year.
As Families Minister Jenny Macklin yesterday promoted the rollout of the government's paid parental leave from January 1, the head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry warned that small business would be drowned in red tape. ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson said he planned to "mount parliamentary pressure" to make sure small and medium businesses do not come under undue pressure from administering the payments. "The government is running the risk here of spoiling a good idea and a good policy with implementation mistakes," he said.
Parental leave payments will be administered by the federal government for the first six months of the year, but after July 1 businesses will be responsible for making the government-funded payments directly to employees.
"This is a government payment scheme, and businesses should not be asked by the government to administer the payments," Mr Anderson said. If the government did not continue to assume responsibility for making the payments after July 1, the ACCI would take the issue to parliament and lobby the independents to support a private member's bill to force the matter, he said.
Ms Macklin yesterday disputed claims that administering the national scheme would place an unfair load on employers. "We understand that it's important to support small business, in particular, so we'll make sure that the money is in their bank account before they have to start payments, and they can use their regular pay cycle," she said in Melbourne yesterday. "We'll continue to work with small business to make sure that the scheme works for them."
Ms Macklin said by administering the government-funded leave, employers would maintain strong links with their employees' caring for newborns. She brushed off concerns companies would scale back their paid parental leave schemes as the government-funded benefits came in. "We'll be very closely monitoring this," she said. "I'll be very disappointed if we have any employers dropping their own schemes."
The new national scheme is expected to cost about $260 million annually for 18 weeks leave at the minimum wage of $570 a week.
"What we've seen is many employers saying they're going to keep their paid parental or maternity leave scheme and allow their employees to take this scheme on top," Ms Macklin said. "They know paid parental leave is good for their employees, good to be able to keep their employees who they've spent money and time training."
Ms Macklin reiterated the government had no plans to scrap the baby bonus, and said she had received no reports of full-term pregnant women deliberately delaying birth until New Year's Day in order to qualify.
Pressure on Australia as Japan stalls plans for Warmist laws
JAPAN'S decision to postpone its plans for an ETS by 2013 has increased pressure on Julia Gillard over her goal of pricing carbon next year. The postponement has also set back efforts for a global market to cut global carbon pollution.
Opposition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt called on the Prime Minister to rule out an emissions trading scheme by New Year's Day in the wake of the Japanese move.
The decision by the world's fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter and Australia's second-largest trading partner to postpone the scheme for a year comes after the US also stepped back from a national emissions trading scheme and as international firms remain concerned about lax pollution controls in China, which has no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.
The Labor and Greens-backed climate change committee is looking at ways to cut carbon emissions and the Productivity Commission is examining carbon reduction regimes around the world.
Climate Change Minister Greg Combet has repeatedly argued that Australia is "locking our economy into failure" without a carbon price. Two weeks ago, he defended the Rudd government's carbon pollution reduction scheme, dumped by the former prime minister. He said it had included an emissions trading scheme that would have "provided the greatest certainty that Australia would meet its emissions reductions targets".
But, Mr Hunt said, the government's plans were "now in tatters". "First Canada, second the US and now Japan have all determined that there is a better way to cut emissions than a massive electricity tax. "The Prime Minister should drop this electricity tax before New Year's Day."
The government should look at the Coalition's approach of market-based incentives for emissions abatement, he said. "The choice for Australia is now a massive new tax or emissions reductions by focusing on our strengths."
Mr Combet has repeatedly argued that a price on carbon is an essential economic reform that will create an incentive to reduce pollution, stimulate investment in low-emission technology and provide greater certainty for business investment.
"It will also enhance our ability to influence the direction of the international climate change negotiations and provide encouragement for a binding agreement including all major emitters," Mr Combet told the Investor Group on Climate Change this month.
"We either grasp this opportunity for an orderly, planned and gradual transition, or face the later prospect of economic adjustment at greater cost and dislocation - in circumstances where other countries have taken the lead and the competitive advantage."
The Japanese government move came after pressure from business, which was concerned an ETS would add to costs and limit their ability to compete against rivals in China and India who would not face the same restrictions.
The Japanese government remains committed to levying a tax on CO2 emissions from fuel in October next year and to the expansion of a pilot plan for renewable sources of electricity.
At the global climate change meetings in Cancun, Mexico, Japan opposed extension of the Kyoto Protocol, calling it unfair because it did not include 70 per cent of the world's emissions, with top polluters China and the US absent.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government had planned to launch an ETS, under which companies would essentially buy and sell licences to pollute, in the fiscal year beginning April 2013 but had postponed it until at least 2014. The environment and other ministers decided to postpone the plan, saying the country would first "carefully consider it".
A carbon-trading system sets a cap on the pollutants companies can emit and then requires heavy polluters to buy credits from companies that pollute less, creating financial incentives to cut emissions
SAS burdened with $50m dud
As they say in the army: SNAFU (I won't translate)
NEW fighting vehicles for Australia's elite soldiers have been condemned as white elephants that are plagued by dodgy electronics and are too heavy for army helicopters. And they are still not used in Afghanistan, despite being bought more than two years ago for nearly $50 million.
Thirty-one Nary patrol vehicles were bought in August 2008 under the watch of the then defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon. The purchase was made without a tender for "reasons of operational urgency". But despite the rush to have them by the start of last year, none has been sent to Afghanistan and none has been earmarked for deployment.
The next-generation vehicles were bought for the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan as replacements for the ageing Land Rovers. In November 2007 the British Ministry of Defence bought the same vehicles from the manufacturer Supacat and had them in Afghanistan within months.
Australia's Defence Department has said the deployment of the first batch of Narys is on track and that some will be in use in the second half of next year. But a defence industry source close to the project said: "One would like to think that this is a capability that should have been [in Afghanistan] by now."
Industry insiders have criticised army engineers and Defence's procurement arm, the Defence Materiel Organisation, because they struggled to merge two "off-the-shelf" purchases - the British vehicles and their US-designed electronics and communications systems.
One problem for the vehicles has been interference between transmissions from different pieces of equipment. One industry source said: "If you have one system operating on a particular radio frequency, it might interfere with your satellite communications equipment, which is operating on different frequencies."
It is understood these problems extended to secret systems used to stop eavesdroppers obtaining classified information.
Next year the government will ask manufacturers to bid to supply 50 new patrol vehicles. But it is understood that the tender has been delayed by a logjam of requests before the top-secret National Security Committee.
Manufacturers are so dismayed they are pushing the government to issue an extra tender, a separate contract to integrate the onboard electronics with the next batch of vehicles. One source condemned the Defence Materiel Organisation, saying: "What they love to do is interfere, and do this Australianisation of stuff."
The department did not respond to questions about the delayed tender, and about whether there had been electrical problems. A statement from Defence says the Narys' onboard systems are now "functional and the electrical system provides adequate power".
Many elite soldiers have completed their driver training on Narys but the vehicles still have not received their initial operational certificates because of what one source said was "limited functionality" of the onboard electronics.
The vehicles' computers are designed to show an array of information from remote bases and drone aircraft. But army technicians have been unable to transmit information consistently.
To protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices, Defence has given the Narys nearly 1000 kilograms of extra armour. But at more than 10,000 kilograms, some of the vehicles exceed weight limits on the rear doors of the army's ageing Chinook 47D transport helicopters, so cannot be driven into them.
The British Army relaxed the weight limit on its Chinooks so the vehicles could enter. The Australian Army can make do by suspending the large vehicles beneath the helicopters, but this is considered more difficult and dangerous and uses more fuel.
Defence says there was no requirement to carry Narys inside cargo helicopters and they can be transported on cargo planes.
The Narys carry heavy-calibre machine guns and grenade launchers but are heavier and have more complex technology than Land Rovers and Bushmasters, used for everything from reconnaissance to "capture-or-kill" missions.
The vehicles' new system promises to integrate satellite communications, video surveillance and radio communications with electronic warfare counter-measures designed to set off improvised roadside bombs before the vehicle is on top of the explosive charge.
A special forces source said not everyone would be unhappy with the delay in using the Narys. "In some ways, command is happy not to deploy them because they cost too much. If you lose one of them it's worth two or three Bushmasters."