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National Curriculum

Despite its flaws, the Australian curriculum deserves serious debate

From the moment Julia Gillard told the press that under the new national curriculum children would learn to spell c-a-t and put it in a sentence―‘the cat sat on the mat’―I began to fear for the enterprise. Would Tony Abbott soon assert that the cat did not sit on the mat and never would so long as Julia promised it? Would our very successful infant teachers really rush back to ‘basics’? The prospects for the national curriculum seemed sour. Subsequent Coalition wins in Victoria and NSW have not sweetened them.

The Australian curriculum, as it is called, has essentially imitated the national collaborative curriculum of the early 1990s, repeating the same process and making the same mistakes. The most significant difference is that it has scrapped outcomes in favour of standards, which is to say that for the better students it will call progress success and for the lesser students it will replace progress with failure. In the 1990s version, students in a given age grade were shown to be on a continuum of progressive outcomes stretching over several age grades. In the present version, students in each age grade will be ranked from A to E with glowing descriptions attached to A grades and sympathetic urgings to E.

This is a major and destructive change, blithely justified by the PM’s favourite educational term, ‘transparency’. Other differences from the 1990s version are either obvious to any authority wanting to bring its curriculum up to date, or in cat-on-the-mat territory. Generally, in structure (overly complex) and in language (often impenetrable), it is like any number of curricula around the states or around the world. However, it does call into question, especially in view of its possible rejection by influential states, the processes and the often sorry consequences of Commonwealth intervention in schooling.

Committees appointed to devise national curricula (I was deputy chair of the previous one) start with what’s called a mapping exercise. The current committee, ACARA, did this, as we did. The exercise is to examine state curricula to see what they have in common and where they differ. Once they have the map, the committee is then faced with deciding what to do. In both the 1990s and now this was not a serious question. It had already been decided that a new curriculum would be written in toto―the mapping exercise was simply grist to that mill. Yet in another committee at another time, the mapping exercise could have been the basis for making different decisions; it could be used to indicate what could be left alone and what might profit from some re-thinking and perhaps intervention. It is, for instance, quite likely that the teaching of literacy is as consistent across the country as it can reasonably be, given the lively state of debate on the subject. Further, the high standing of Australia on international scales of comparison in reading suggests that it is successful. It is extremely unlikely that it needs a dose of the cat on the mat, or indeed any other of the newcomers to the ‘basics’, such as grammar, however desirable that might be for other reasons. Still on the basics, it is also unlikely that a brand new version of the maths syllabus would differ much from what is around already, nationally and internationally, or that it would improve our currently good standing in international maths tests.

Much the same could be said of other areas of the curriculum around the country: they are either very similar already or their differences don’t matter much. What a national effort ought to be directed towards are obvious gaps, misconceptions and unjustifiable inconsistencies. Further, this needs to be done with some political prudence. There is no gain in trampling on understandably territorial state authorities, putting teachers and their organisations offside, or feeding the idiocies of politicians on questions of history and national values. There are fine lines to tread, which are in danger of being obliterated by grandiose revisions of everything.

In the 1990s there seemed to have been a general acceptance that a consistent national curriculum would be a good thing, even though many disliked the actual curriculum presented for approval. The states that turned it down in fact adopted its framework and re-badged much of it as their own. The same position seems to apply also to today’s model, though whether it will stimulate much change in the states seems unlikely, judging from their reactions to drafts. Oddly, the apparent acceptance in principle of the idea blinds our central government to the fact that federations (like Canada, which performs better than we do) usually do not have national curricula. In practice, accepting the principle does not extend to its realisation. It may be an impossible idea. Or is there a problem perhaps in the reasons commonly offered for a full scale re-write?

One persistent reason offered has been the need to provide for mobile families―the armed services are often mentioned. Unfortunately for its promoters, this is a fantasy. No curriculum would remove the differences in textbooks or required clothing among schools and none would compensate for the major differences among selective schools, streamed schools, comprehensive schools, private schools and schools at the bottom of the My School tables.

The other reason commonly offered is that a national curriculum naturally would be of superior quality given the resources that can be put into it and the accumulated wisdom of its writers. The quality argument, however, is dangerous because it can easily backfire, obviously because it will be written by much the same writers as its state counterparts, but more subtly because throughout the years it takes to develop a full-scale curriculum, the implication that existing curricula are of inadequate quality has to be maintained.

Although the 1990s’ committee took it for granted that their curriculum would probably be superior to its state counterparts, the point was not flogged. Consistency was put up as a self-evident good and an outcomes approach was presented as both new and beneficial. In contrast, the drafts of 2010 are more conservative in structure and are being sold as of superior quality. Inevitably the claim to superior quality is often rejected: the English draft is said to be poorly structured, the history draft biased, the maths and science too soft, and so on. These are mainly predictable complaints from predictable sources, usually obscure to the public but good for predictable headlines. Yet worse still are the headline-seeking politicians, the shadow ministers who parody a perfectly sound history draft or the ministers who represent a serious, if somewhat crowded, English draft as a ‘back to basics’ curriculum, basics in this case being ludicrous appeals to the imagined virtues of phonics and grammar. The sensible comments on the limited usefulness of grammar by the chair of the English drafting committee, Peter Freebody, can no more compete with reports of the cat on the mat than the measured defences of the history draft can drown out Coalition appeals to Empire.

The cat on the mat goes along with heaps of garbage about transparency and accountability, represented pointedly by the My School exercise but extended to imply that standards in schools and teaching are not up to scratch, and to assert that shallow statistics, narrow testing and wholesale revision of the curriculum will straighten teachers out. Of course they won’t. The most they’ll do is accelerate choice and selection of schools, and drag down the reputation of teachers. Needless to say, government schools and teachers will suffer most. Independent schools are quarantined from suspicions about their quality, Catholic schools maintain their caring image, and both are probably considered exempt from official curricula anyway if they so choose.

Whatever its faults, the idea of a national curriculum, and especially how to achieve one, deserves serious debate. Much of its own promotion is preventing this, as is the perennial shallowness of the media on the subject of education. How the present attempt ultimately fares will depend not on its merits but on its political usefulness to a variety of interests. If the Coalition wants to turn it against Labor it will be buried (probably to await a resurrection in much the same form). If they see in it a chance to push selection further and weaken government schooling, they’ll accept it for its usefulness in complementing the My School agenda. Even then they will still have to find a way through Australia’s particular federal arrangements―and there the omens are not and never have been good.

By Bill Hannan

Bill Hannan is a Melbourne writer who writes about art and school curriculum. He taught English and languages and was magazine editor for the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association. Later he became Chair of Victoria’s State Board of Education and Assistant Chief General Manager of the Education Department of Victoria.