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National Curriculum a step forward


Cover of Curriculum Review

In last year's announcement of a review of the Australian Curriculum, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne acknowledged the value of a national curriculum but argued for a review to ensure that 'it genuinely met students' needs, matches parents' expectations and drives education quality'

Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire have delivered a 288 page report with 30 recommendations. The report traverses widely over the educational landscape, from the governance of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and consultation with parents, to discussion of teaching pedagogies and analysis of curriculum content. It also suggests areas for further research and analysis.

A specific focus is that of the three cross-curriculum priorities that were designated to be taught as part of every subject in school: indigenous history and culture, Australia's engagement with Asia and sustainability. The practicality of applying these priorities across the whole curriculum in a meaningful and relevant way appeared problematic, and ran the risk of notional reference in teaching programmes so as to satisfy the requirement. 

In Recommendation 17 the Review argues that these cross-curriculum priorities instead be embedded 'explicitly, and only where educationally relevant, in the mandatory content of the curriculum'. Provided this is done, and done well, this recommendation will be well-received by those on the ground entrusted with designing teaching and learning programmes.

Another focus of the Review is that of an overly crowded curriculum. There is also a perceived need to emphasise more strongly the core material necessary for a good foundation for learning. 

The Australian Curriculum had made some significant progress in this area. In English, for example, it included an emphasis on a return to basics in teaching grammar. In Mathematics, also, the amount of content was diminished somewhat in favour of greater depth in covering the three main 'content strands' - numbers and algebra, measurement and geometry, statistics and probability.  There are times when we need to teach less so as to teach more.

There remained concerns, however, that too much content was being delivered, particularly in the Primary sector. In Recommendation 12 the Review called for a narrow core of required teaching, and more explicitly that Foundation to Year 2 should focus on literacy and numeracy. This recommendation should find favour with many teachers worried about overloaded programmes, and with parents concerned that the basics of literacy and numeracy be established in the early years. The challenge here is to not become too restrictive – an emphasis on back to basics, in conjunction with national testing, may unduly narrow the curriculum, limiting imagination, curiosity and creativity.

Throughout the formulation of the Australian curriculum, subject content naturally enough attracted greatest attention and critique. What was to be included or not included, and questions of balance and fairness would always excite interest, as any curriculum must be selective and will never be value-free.   

History attracted most critical coverage. The emphasis is on teaching Australian history, but with a greater focus on setting it in a world context – both European and Asian. There is a strong focus on Aboriginal history and culture. And the skills of historical enquiry were emphasised. 

Nevertheless, the subject does risk being overloaded with content and seemed too prescriptive in style. There appeared to be something of a civics focus and more than a touch of teaching students what they should believe. There appeared to be too great a focus on abstract social forces rather than on the story and on individuals, and it remained vulnerable to the charge of indoctrination. 

As was expected the Review does have a significant amount to say on content, and especially in History, though it was not as ideologically driven as feared by some. In Recommendation 15 the Review calls for greater recognition of 'the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia's development'. 

Broadly speaking I would concur with their observations. Of particular interest to those of us involved in faith schools was the observation that the History curriculum is largely silent on matters of religion, and especially the impact of Christianity on the Australian story. 

It must be remembered, too, that the Australian curriculum is work in progress. Work on areas such as Languages and Commerce/Economics is still to be finalised. And there are more than a few minefields in these subject areas. For examples, implementing a Language policy that is practical will be no small achievement. 

The assessing of the final years of education through the HSC and VCE etc remains in State hands and the likelihood of any national examination is a distant one. My own view is that there is a strong argument for limiting the scope of the Australian curriculum; that is, having an Australian curriculum across the 'core' subject areas while not being prescriptive in areas such as the Arts and Languages, where different contexts and the value of diversity itself may outweigh the benefits of a common curriculum.   

This leads to one recommendation of the Review that will attract much support from many involved in schools. Recommendation 16 invites education authorities to 'implement the content of the Australian Curriculum with some flexibility in the manner in which it is sequenced and delivered'. 

One the challenges involved with implementing a national curriculum is that of respecting the local context of schools whether be State, location, student composition and so on. My school, for example, is a distinctive school, Jesuit and Catholic, moulded by its particular history and geography. Catholic independent schools linked with particular spiritualities, State selective high schools, the local State and CEO systemic schools, the traditional private schools, Montessori and Steiner schools, independent Christian schools, Muslim and Jewish schools, all have distinctive styles and strengths. They contribute to the richness of Australian society, as well as meeting the diverse needs and contexts of individual students. We don't desire a situation where this diversity is standardised into blandness and conformity

The Review recognises the priority of curricula that serves the needs of the specific and local needs of the school's population. This is a welcome emphasis, and one that centralised bureaucracies such as the NSW Board of Studies will have difficulty in fully accepting. Diversity does pose challenges, but it is, in my view, also an historical strength in Australian education.

It has allowed for more flexibility and experimentation in education. It may be more efficient to have a standardised approach but efficiency is not the prime aim of schooling. As long as strong standards of reporting and testing are maintained then surely there is surely room for a range of approaches, especially in the final years of schooling. It is worth noting that the much touted Finnish school system allows very considerable flexibility in curriculum.

Some observers have noted that the introduction of a national curriculum has not been a panacea for improving educational standards that many may hope for. It could be argued that France and England, for example, have not had their performances improved by such an introduction. Issues of school funding and of the training, support and remuneration of teachers are also key questions in addressing the future of Australia's schools. 

The Federal Review addresses many of the concerns around of the Australian curriculum. On the whole their recommendations seem appropriate and constructive.  

Chris Middleton headshotChris Middleton SJ is the Rector at Xavier College, Kew, in Melbourne

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, curriculum, education, schools, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Donnelly



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Existing comments

Refreshing, Fr Middleton, to read an appraisal of the education system not driven by ideological positioning and embracing a wide vision for genuine education. I thought the article was rather Jesuitical!

john frawley | 16 October 2014  

JohnH. The overarching principle at all stages has to be: First, sound and thorough foundations, made more meaningful with relevant information and examples. Second, specialised subject matter to equip the student for their future interests. Subject matter is one thing,finding teachers who can teach, who can make learning enjoyable and impart knowledge and foster a positive attitude to lifetime learning is another and just as important. These teachers may not have done well in their exams because the exams never asked the right questions to find the best future teachers. To what extent are these crucial questions being addressed?

johnhicks@wes | 16 October 2014  

One issue that is rarely mentioned in discussions about the history content of curriculum is the question of readiness of the student for information.There is a case for arguing that school history content is not primarily about the 'discipline' of history as about what the story of the past can affect in the growth of the student's ability to think. School history is not so much about teaching history to school children as teaching school children about history -that is the past and all its consequential impacts upon their lives. Clearly as a child develops, different styles of presentation and discussion of historical 'facts' can be and indeed must be introduced. History is a subject that contributes very strongly to the intellectual development of the student if it is presented with a good understanding of the developing capacity for formal thinking of the student. A good deal of the comment about the 'history' content of the curriculum I have been hearing comes from quarters innocent of any recognition of developmental psychology.

Ross Shanahan | 16 October 2014  

As you point out, Chris, an Australian national curriculum is a work in progress and it will be many years before it comes to fruition. You also mentioned it was not a one stop cure-all for any and all educational malaise as evidenced by the "dumbing down" of education in England and France. The schools I know of which cope best with the national curriculum and standardised (and often debased) "A" levels in England are places like Winchester and Westminster, which use the n.c. as a base but go far beyond. Winchester make use of the Cambridge Pre-University courses for this. Many of the benchmark schools in Australia are from the historic, mainstream Christian Churches, rather than the Pentecostal and Evangelical groups, which the federal government seems to woo assiduously (possibly for a sort of aspirational bloc vote). I think the traditional churches need to have some input into this ongoing debate, not in a narrow self-protective sense, but because, without the alumni of your school, Scotch College (Presbyterian), Melbourne Grammar (Anglican) and so many others Australia would not have had leaders such as Alfred Deakin, Sir John Monash and so many others when they were needed. The moral lessons they learnt, even though many were not professedly Christian, were important.

Edward Fido | 17 October 2014  

I received an English Classical education that regarded Scripture as part of our heritage that included Greek Philosophy and the scientific method together with Roman law and literature.The phraise Judae- Christian heritage is an invention of the American Evangelical Right. In Australia we have been plagued by the concept of Secular Education that goes back to the 1870's that maintains that one quarantine religion and life issues from the curriculum and leave them to the churches. In our multi-cultural society it is important that all children have some understanding of cultures and Religions other than their own..

john ozanne | 22 October 2014  

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