Debate confuses national curriculum with national standards


Debate confuses national curriculum with national standardsIn an election year, education becomes a hot topic. Both Parties attempt to gain the high ground, demonstrating to the voters that Party A is much more committed to the grand endeavour of educating the young of the nation than is Party B. The media then joins in, and journalists become education experts. Administrators of educational sectors and Union chiefs begin to give their opinions. This year it is about a national curriculum. Missing to date are the voices of those who know best, those who actually run schools. The debate might be better-informed were their opinions to be requested.

Perhaps a reason why the School Principals, and their national professional organisations, have been largely silent on this matter is because the chorus of those demanding a national curriculum is singing so badly out of tune, and has confused the terminology greatly, and is arguing mainly with catchy simplifications. One editorialist, a known Cassandra, argues that "the laws of physics do not change in the middle of the Murray", employing nicer alliteration than the PM did when he described "some elements" of an unnamed curriculum as "incomprehensible sludge".

The start for this debate seems to have been aberrations advocated in the English syllabus for WA schools. They have been rightly decried, but one bad apple does not mean the whole case is to be thrown out – in this instance the case is the richness of the diversity of curriculum offerings through the nine systems we have in the Australian States and Territories. Another kick to the debate was the ranking of Australia as 29th in the world as regards the teaching of Maths and Science. To suggest that a national curriculum would raise such a ranking is a non sequitur. Such surveys are restricted in their criteria, and are wobbly in their helpfulness when trying to apply them. Anyway, it would not be difficult to find another survey that gives a much better score!

What muddies the debate is that some of the commentators listed above use the word 'curriculum' and 'national curriculum' when in fact they mean standards of performance. Put simply, curriculum refers to content, and standards assessment refers to measurement. There could well be more agreement if the advocates were to urge some type of national standards test, to check that all the educational sectors in Australia were maintaining sufficient levels of learning.

The headlines often say 'National Curriculum' when in fact the proposal is about a measurement device for National Standards. Some Australian States used to employ the ASAT instrument (Australian Scholastic Aptitude Test). This did not prescribe content. In the United States, admission to tertiary institutions is determined according to results gained by students in the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test). Again, that instrument does not prescribe curriculum content in detail, but manages to grade the performance of tens of thousands of Seniors (final year students) educated in several dozen regional educational systems throughout the 50 States of America. Employed to determine admissions to the tertiary sector, SAT ensures that all schools within those many sectors strive to maintain high standards. At the same time they are able to enjoy a multiplicity of curricula, adapted to local needs. Compared to the multiplicity of United States educational regions, our mere nine such sectors should present little difficulty in devising an appropriate standards assessment instrument.

Who is speaking for whom in this debate? The head of one of the larger Catholic education sectors in Australia was quoted recently as saying that "Catholic schools have for a long supported the idea of a more nationally focused curriculum". As a School Head, I never knew that, and nor did any of my erstwhile colleagues. As far as I am aware, the schools have never been asked such a question, so how can it be said that Catholic schools support a national curriculum?

What would be lost if a national curriculum were to replace our present model? Firstly, the flexibility of adaptation that can come from being in a smaller sector. The President of the Australian Secondary Principals Association has been quoted as "saying that a student in the Tiwi Islands needs to be studying the same curriculum as a student in Melbourne doesn’t make sense". At one stage New South Wales was the second largest educational system in the world, outside the Soviet Union. It was correspondingly slow in its ability to move. Teaching in NSW, we envied people in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania for the flexibility and ease of adaptation they were able to enjoy in devising curricula for subjects such as Computer Studies and Media Studies.

Debate confuses national curriculum with national standardsIt was a ponderous process to effect change in New South Wales at the time, and could take six years. What on earth would it take in a unitary national system, one attempting to speak for all nine Australian sectors? Parents endorse flexibility. It is part of our culture of choice. Schools offering diverse curricula flourish in all our cities and towns, because the parents want them. Some schools follow the ordinary State prescribed syllabus for the senior years, others might follow the International Baccalaureate, or teach different subjects in different ways, such as Montessori, or have a curriculum specialising in certain aspects such as music or agriculture. Why suppress such diversity?

Proponents for national curriculum speak of the 'curriculum commissars', 'social engineering', and the 'curriculum crimes' that have been inflicted on students in some of the States where standards seem to have dropped. In those cases, the damage was restricted for a relatively short term to a small group of the population, and the reaction of an intelligent public reversed the failings. Imagine if those 'curriculum commissars' were transferred to the national scene, where their power would go well beyond the borders of one State. What is to prevent 'curriculum crimes' being perpetrated by a 'boffin in Canberra', as the South Australian Education Minister describes them. Being national, across all sectors, the damage would be greater.

It has happened from time to time in various education departments in the different States, that advocates of a certain school of thought have high-jacked the curriculum and tried to alter it to secure outcomes they believe to be the proper ones. There is nothing per se that would prevent that possibility happening on a national level if there was a national curriculum. There is also an unfortunate tendency among some of the centralisers of curriculum, even in State Departments, to prescribe minutes and hours that a subject is to be taught. This is the case in New South Wales, and suffocates creativity and the possibility to adapt their curriculum to the needs of the students. In New South Wales, the Education Department at one stage heaped much ridicule upon itself for tackling The Kings School and threatening to withdraw registration because the school did not give enough minutes to Dance in Years 9 and 10. Knowing its boys, that school had decided it wanted to devote that time to more productive educational experiences. What if those same “commissars” who prescribed the minutes for dance, were to move to Canberra, where it is the Commonwealth that would become their stage?

Another argument being used with increasing frequency for the imposition of a national curriculum is the annual interstate movement of students, when families transfer from one State to another. The estimates of these numbers vary. On one day the Prime Minister was quoted saying it was 70,000, and on the next day it was 80,000. Very few school principals see this interstate migration as a problem. In essence, it is no different to a student transferring from one school to another in the same city, where the second school may not teach the same languages. Adaptations are fairly easily made. It certainly would be difficult to produce many serious examples of disadvantage.

The truth is that the present system works well, critics notwithstanding. It is relatively easy to incorporate a student into Year 11 or Year 12 from another State. There may be different novels being studied, or certain parts of the Maths syllabus are treated at other times, but generally it works well. The only way of solving that particular challenge would be to have all the schools in Australia teaching the same syllabus on the same day, throughout the country. That certainly would be social engineering, and evocative of the Brave New World. At the completion of their secondary studies, when a student moves interstate, there usually is little difficulty in the student being granted an ad eundem statum by the university to which he or she seeks access. Going further, our primary degrees at our universities are accepted internationally. It all works out. Our present system provides the richness of diversity, high standards and good quality educational experiences, and the possibility of flexibility to accommodate local circumstances.

Educational system administrators and politicians and media commentators can become too divorced from the reality of a school. Imagine the horror with which most school principals would read the advice of the Executive Director of one of largest Catholic schooling sectors in this country, who wrote that governments should work together "to produce a national curriculum and to introduce it progressively, beginning in Kindergarten/ Year 1 in the primary, and in Year 7 in secondary schools". Other advocates for a national curriculum say that it does not mean that every classroom would be teaching the same subject at the same time every day, but the quotation just given sounds ominously as if it does. If we need a centralised educational bureaucracy from the national capital to tell us what to teach, then who has a say in the appointment of such curriculum framers? There would be no pluralism to offset the faddism of the centralised curriculum framer. If a boffin in Canberra can decide what we must teach, then why have teachers and thinkers on the local level? Why not just have books printed from Canberra, or a daily online programme sent by email to all of us each day?



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Existing comments

Other than let the political claims roll on it would be worthwhile to establish the extent to which there are significant and indefensible variations in curricula across Australia.
It is quite likely that we already have a national curriculum. The fuss might simply refelect politicians' dislike for the one we have.

Bill Hannan
Bill Hannan | 03 April 2007

As a too long time teacher, I endorse Greg O'Kelly's forthright and typically logical comments. There is a confusion between curriculum and standards and Greg does well to point this out. Nevertheless I do support the idea of a national curriculum, particularly from the point of view of the sciences. The reason is that I would hope a more coordinated approach to the various science curricula would also be more enlightened. This may be a false hope but it is one I cling to. A national curriculum does not have to impose a mental straitjacket - it can actually be a source of inspiration, if written carefully. I do have some confidence that this is possible and even likely. In past years the Australian Academy of Science has produced excellent resources for teachers. The present state-based curricula, some highly prescriptive, split the potential market into smaller entities making the production of resources extremely expensive. In fact, so expensive that it does not happen in the depth and breadth that modern science requires.
A national approach could rectify this.
My only other comment is that Greg's use of the popular but tautological "the reason is ...because" spears my grammatical heart. Et tu, Greg?
Peter Ofner | 06 April 2007

I taught in two states in Australia.The curriculum was very similar in Literacy and Mathematics. The differences lie in the Social Science areas, eg history why teach Northern Suburbs Victorians, about WA history and why teach Western Australian the history of Port Phillip.
It is all about control by political masters in Canberra. It has nothing to do with improving standards.
terence | 07 April 2007

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