The Dubious Quest for a National Curriculum

A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another … in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.
—J.S. Mill, On Liberty

In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, both major political parties advocated developing a national curriculum to replace the existing eight state and territory approaches. Since being elected the Rudd government, with Julia Gillard as Minister for Education, has established a National Curriculum Board and agreed on a timeline to deliver the new curriculum, initially in English, mathematics, history and science, at the start of the 2011 school year.

Given that the National Curriculum Board is spending the second half of 2008 holding forums to finalise its strategic plan and the guidelines that will be used to write a national curriculum, it is an opportune time to contribute to the debate. Such a debate is essential given (a) that previous attempts to develop a national curriculum have failed, (b) that Australia’s current approach to school curriculum is substandard and flawed, and (c) that the Rudd government intends to force all states and territories to adopt its preferred curriculum model. In addition to all Australian schools having to implement the national curriculum in what is to be taught (essential content), they will also be held accountable for students’ performance in learning outcomes (achievement standards).

Past attempts to develop a national curriculum have achieved little, in regard to better supporting teachers, raising standards or giving students a challenging, rigorous and worthwhile educational experience. The first attempt occurred in 1980 with the publication of the Curriculum Development Centre’s Core Curriculum for Australian Schools. In opposition to basing what students should learn on established subjects like history, mathematics, English or science, the CDC document focused on what were described as capabilities and competencies, such as: learning and thinking techniques, ways of organising knowledge, dispositions and values, skills or abilities, forms of expression, practical performances and interpersonal and group relationships. The focus was on the learning process, not traditional content and, in addition to the capabilities listed above, the areas of knowledge chosen to constitute the core curriculum were very different from a more subject-focused approach. The core curriculum that all students should study included such broad areas as scientific and technological ways of knowing and their social applications, work, leisure and lifestyle, and social, cultural and civic studies.

The second, and more substantial, attempt to develop a national curriculum involves the Keating government’s national statements and profiles developed during the early to mid-1990s. The curriculum is divided into eight key learning areas and the statements and profiles, instead of representing a clear and succinct syllabus that teachers can use in schools, provide a framework detailing learning outcomes that students are expected to demonstrate as they progress through school.

While not as “progressive” as the CDC’s curriculum plan, the statements and profiles, by adopting an outcomes-based education model of curriculum, enshrine many of the tenets of progressive education. The process of learning takes precedence over teaching essential content; the individual child’s interests, needs and desires are paramount; the concept of failure is removed, as all students are considered capable of success; and much of the curriculum is ideologically driven and politically correct. The idea that education can be balanced and disinterested is condemned as disguising an elitist, Euro-centric and bourgeois worldview and the curriculum, especially with English, and what is known as Studies of Society and the Environment (which replaced history, geography and social studies), is reshaped according to a number of politically correct perspectives, including: multicultural, class, feminist, environmental, gender, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

In its more extreme form, sometimes described as Essential Learnings, outcomes-based education embodies cultural relativism (on the basis that it was impossible to argue that some cultures or cultural practices are superior or preferable to others), a subjective epistemology (there are no absolutes or truths, as how each person experiences the world is conditioned by his or her unique identity) and a belief that the purpose of education is to bring about the cultural Left’s new utopia (that the third characteristic contradicts the first two is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by advocates of the new curriculum). In addition to being ideologically driven and irrational—if all truth claims carry equal weight, how does one decide between opposing arguments?—an outcomes-based education curriculum model is impossible to implement. Such is the complexity and vagueness in the way the curriculum is described and the unrealistic and time-consuming nature of its assessment regime, that teachers are swamped by gobbledygook and bureaucratic detail.

Instead of replacing the existing eight state and territory curriculum documents with a national one, a third, less ambitious and more narrowly focused attempt to develop a national approach relates to ensuring that there is greater consistency by asking states and territories to embed Statements of Learning (otherwise known as common curriculum outcomes that all students are expected to demonstrate) in key subjects within their respective documents. The work on Statements of Learning has continued for five years, with learning outcomes completed in English, mathematics, science, civics and citizenship, and information and communications technology (ICT). Under the Howard government, adoption of the Statements of Learning was a requirement of Commonwealth funding, and earlier this year all the states and territories confirmed that they had incorporated the statements into their own documents.

The majority of the statements are so vague and generalised that it is impossible to know to what they refer in terms of what students are expected to learn. In the historical perspective related to Civics and Citizenship, students are expected to “investigate the influence of significant individuals and events in the development of democracy in Australia” (which individuals and what events?) and “investigate key events and ideas in the development of Australian self-government and democracy” (which ideas should be given priority are not detailed—so much for consistency).

While the English Statement of Learning is more explicit—students at Year 7 are expected to know about “correct tenses and subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement” and the function of “topic sentences to emphasise the point or argument in each paragraph”—there is no attempt to list the literary texts that all students should encounter. Moreover, in the early years of reading, the more structured and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness approach to literacy is under-valued.

As the Statements of Learning relate only to Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and have been written to bring about greater consistency instead of replacing existing state and territory curriculum documents, it is clear that this attempt does not represent a national curriculum as most would understand the concept. The Statements of Learning also fail to say anything about the underlying values and beliefs that should inform classroom pedagogy or detail the purpose of education in a broader sense.

A New Approach

Regardless of past failures, it is clear that Australian schools will be forced to implement some kind of national curriculum at the start of the 2011 school year. What might it look like and will it be an improvement? The good news, evidenced by a number of related policy and background papers, is that the mistakes of the past have been acknowledged. Thus the new national curriculum should be easier to implement and more academically challenging and sound.

As I detailed in “Getting the Schools Back to Basics” (Quadrant,June 2008), one of the reasons for the ALP’s 2007 electoral success was because Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, the then shadow education minister, staked John Howard’s ground on education. Nowhere was this more true than when it came to a conservative view of the curriculum. Smith questioned Western Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education, Rudd argued for increased testing and accountability, and the policy document Establishing a National Curriculum to Improve Our Children’s Educational Outcomes (February 2007) signalled a retreat from Australia’s adoption of a progressive orthodoxy in education. The paper argues that generic skills and competencies must be taught in the context of the established disciplines of knowledge and each discipline is unique in the way it allows us to relate to and understand the wider world. The paper states:

“A national curriculum should be developed in each of the key disciplines. The disciplines are the best means we have found of understanding the world around us. Every student should gain a foundation of knowledge and skills in each of the central disciplines.
“Each of these core areas also has a characteristic way of working, and young people need a grasp of those ways of working. It is in the combination of knowledge and skills that the disciplines give students power over their world.”

The ALP paper also acknowledges that recent curriculum documents have been, “vague, non-specific and unclear” and that any new curriculum should be, “simple, clear, explicit and written in plain English”. Contrary to the mantra that the best way to strengthen the education system is to invest more, the ALP’s education policy argues that teachers, schools and systems should be held accountable for how well they perform as measured by higher standards and improved learning outcomes.

Federalist Paper 2: The Future of Schooling in Australia (written for the Council for the Australian Federation and published in 2007) outlines what the state and territory ALP governments expect in terms of the future direction of Australian education—including a national curriculum. Once again, at least at the level of rhetoric, the signs are good. Similar to the ALP’s election campaign paper on establishing a national curriculum, Federalist Paper 2 gives priority to the type of “deep knowledge” associated with the subject disciplines. No doubt, in part, due to public and media debates over the last two to three years about the lack of academic rigour in the curriculum, the paper states:

“Expertise requires deep knowledge of a particular subject discipline … Expertise does
not readily transfer across disciplines and skills such as high-level problem-solving are not disembodied competencies that can be used independent of a deep knowledge of a particular subject discipline.”

While acknowledging the need to adjust teaching to the needs and interests of the individual child and to integrate technology into the classroom (termed “personalised learning”), the need to develop general capabilities and to have cross-curricula perspectives, when discussing a national curriculum, the paper argues that all primary children need a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy, and secondary students must encounter the key subject disciplines. When describing what a national curriculum might look like, the Federalist paper refers to a core/plus model, involving mandated content that must be taught and achievement standards that students should demonstrate, as well as aspects of the curriculum that can be fashioned to best suit the needs, teaching styles and educational philosophy of individual schools.

The National Curriculum Board, in the second half of 2008, is undertaking meetings across Australia as the first step to developing a national curriculum. At an invitational forum held in Melbourne on June 27, a background paper titled National Curriculum Development Paper was circulated. This paper gives the clearest idea to date of what is intended. The first thing to note about the paper is that there is no mention of outcomes-based education. Given the consensus that outcomes-based education represents a substandard, inefficient and ideologically-driven approach to curriculum, that should not be surprising.

The new approach to developing a national curriculum involves a so-called standards model specifying: content (defined as the “knowledge, understandings and skills that students are to acquire or develop”) and achievement standards (defined as the “level of knowledge, understanding and skills that students are expected to achieve, usually at some particular point in time”). It should be noted just as Australia followed the USA in adopting outcomes-based education, a standards approach is also derivative. The majority of US states dropped outcomes-based education during the mid-to-late 1990s and the debate since that time has centred on developing a standards model of curriculum development.

The second thing to note, as do the two ALP documents discussed above, is that the paper responds positively to many of the curriculum debates that have recently occurred across Australia. The paper acknowledges that the proposed national curriculum should:

• develop “deep understandings of domain knowledge”,
• recognise that so-called generic competencies are often domain-specific,
• be written in clear English, be teacher-friendly in terms of length, detail, complexity and demands placed on the classroom,
• give students an “understanding of the past that has shaped society and culture in which they are growing and developing”,
• assist in raising standards and improving student learning,
• do more than simply detail minimum benchmarks,
• challenge all students, regardless of background or perceived disadvantage, and
• be based on local and international best practice as well as evidence-based research and what professional practice suggests works best.

Searching for Lasseter’s Reef

Notwithstanding the sense that those in control of Australian education are on the right track when it comes to the proposed national curriculum, there are grounds for concern. While the National Curriculum Paper argues in favour of the established disciplines of knowledge, it weakens such a commitment by suggesting that any curriculum should embrace cross-curricula competencies such as “creativity or flexibility of thinking” and “managing and monitoring one’s learning” and perspectives such as “cultural sensitivity and respect, engaged citizenship and a commitment to sustainable patterns of living”. Given the history of curriculum development in Australia, where the cultural Left has been able to dominate the field, it should not surprise if the new curriculum embodies a politically correct and ideologically- driven viewpoint on such matters. That such an outcome will eventuate is more than likely, given that control of developing a national curriculum has been handed to individuals and organisations representative of Australia’s education establishment.

One of the criticisms of an outcomes-based education model is that it is premised on the belief that all students are capable of success and that learning is developmental—as all students learn at different rates and in different ways, it is impossible to expect them to have mastered a set body of knowledge, understanding and skills by a particular year level. As a result, students are promoted from year to year on the assumption that if they have not learned something to the level required, they will catch up at some later stage. But not only do many not catch up, they enter secondary school illiterate and innumerate or complete Year 12 unable to cope with the demands of tertiary study. The reality is that not all students are capable of success. Under the heading “Principles for developing national curriculum”, the paper states that students learn at different rates, implies that every child should experience success and that the new curriculum will be directed at each stage of schooling, not particular year levels.

Developing a national curriculum is a key plank in Kevin Rudd’s “education revolution” and on various occasions the statement has been made that any new curriculum will reflect international best practice. The National Curriculum Development Paper refers to Finland, Ontario, Hong Kong and Singapore when examining international curricula—one assumes on the basis that such countries represent best practice and are worth emulating. Unfortunately, the paper offers no justification of why such places have been chosen, but the implication is that their selection is because they have adopted a range of progressive initiatives close to the heart of those responsible for developing a national curriculum. The paper states:

“Hong Kong and Singapore are both initiating reforms to enhance the strategies that teachers employ, decreasing their reliance on drilling of basic skills and encouraging group work, inquiry skills, projects, higher-order thinking skills and educating the whole child. In Singapore this is reflected in the removal of content from their previous curriculum and in Hong Kong by re-developed curriculum that incorporates ‘generic skills’ and ‘values and attitudes’. This is also the situation in Korea where required national curriculum content has been reduced by 30 per cent to enable more district and school-based flexibility.”

What is most revealing about this quotation is the simplistic division between drilling the basics and curriculum content (bad) and group work, inquiry skills, generic skills and values and attitudes (good). Learning theory suggests that both are essential and, especially during the early primary years, rote learning and memorisation are critical in order that children are able to move on to higher-order, more creative tasks. It should also be noted that while countries like Singapore have adopted some progressive curriculum ideas, there is still a strong commitment to academic studies, competition and, in some cases, streaming. While not included in the above list, Japan’s experience over the last five to six years is also instructive. After adopting a number of reforms to reduce the amount of content covered in the curriculum and to make learning more student-friendly, recent debates have centred on the need to introduce greater academic rigour and a more competitive, disciplined classroom environment.

In many of the ALP’s 2007 policy papers and in subsequent speeches by Julia Gillard, as Minister for Education, the purpose of education is to increase productivity and to make Australia more internationally competitive. The National Curriculum Paper also stresses a utilitarian view of education when it argues that a national curriculum will help build future national prosperity, ensure that individuals work productively and are committed to an Australian society characterised by a “rich diversity of histories and cultures”. Ignored is the value of education for its own sake and the broader cultural importance of education related to Australia’s place in the grand narrative associated with the Western tradition and our Judeo-Christian heritage.

While the rhetoric associated with developing a national curriculum talks of collaboration, being transparent and involving teachers, parents and the wider community, it is obvious that the process is being carefully orchestrated by those with a vested interest in the status quo and closed to those who will be most affected. The task of developing the new curriculum has been handed to the very organisations and groups that have either been complicit in or stood idly by while Australian schools have suffered since the introduction of the Keating government’s national statements and profiles and Australia’s experiment with outcomes-based education. Two of the more influential educational bodies in Australia are the Curriculum Corporation, owned by the various ministers of education, and the Australian Council for Education Research. Both have strong ties to government, have been instrumental in how education has developed in Australia over the last thirty years or so, and have been promised a key role in developing the new national curriculum. The composition of the National Curriculum Board, made up of representatives from the usual list of state and territory bureaucracies and professional bodies, also suggests that the outcome will be carefully managed.

The most obvious illustration of the way in which the process has been captured relates to the role of the National Curriculum Board’s Deputy Chairman, Tony Mackay. As well as being deputy chair of the national curriculum body, Mackay is President of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and chair of the Curriculum Standing Committee of National Education Professional Associations (CSCNEPA). ACSA has been hostile to Howard government initiatives like literacy and numeracy testing, holding schools accountable for performance, financially supporting non-government schools, and advocacy of a conservative agenda in relation to education and the culture wars.

At two meetings held in 2006 with the purpose of recapturing the education debate and putting ACSA in a position to influence the development of any proposed national curriculum, the argument was put that talk of a crisis in education was a media beat-up orchestrated by conservative political forces and sympathetic fellow travellers. To assist in its campaign to recapture the debate ACSA established the CSCNEPA, a peak organisation made up of the heads of fourteen national professional associations, including many, such as the Australian Education Union, the Australian Secondary Principals Association and the Australian Council of Deans of Education, committed to a cultural Left view of education.


Given that Australian schools, government and non-government, will have to adopt a national curriculum, to be developed over the next two years and ready for implementation by 2011, one approach is to accept that it is going to happen and to try and ensure that the new curriculum is the best one possible.

Based on a number of international benchmarking projects, carried out by the author, identifying the type of curriculum developed by stronger-performing education systems, Australia’s national curriculum should:

• be related to specific year levels instead of covering a range of years,
• acknowledge the central importance of academic disciplines,
• be benchmarked against world’s-best equivalent documents,
• incorporate regular testing and consequences for failure,
• be concise, free of jargon and manageable,
• adopt a core/elective approach, and
• be evidence-based in terms of what is effective in raising standards and best supporting teachers.

Critics of the traditional academic curriculum argue that the more conservative approach focuses on teaching arid subject matter disconnected from the real world and devoid of broader values and perspectives. Such is not the case. No curriculum, or view of education more broadly, can be value-free; the challenge is to make what is often implicit and taken for granted explicit and able to be justified. In relation to the proposed national curriculum, I would suggest, as argued by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, that the following values should be adopted (Roger Moses, the Principal of New Zealand’s Wellington College, is responsible for introducing me to C.S. Lewis’s work on values):

• Kindness
• Honesty and truthfulness
• Consideration and concern for others (justice)
• Compassion
• Obedience (to rightful authority)
• Responsibility
• Respect
• Duty (obligation)

In opposition to being ideologically driven, any new national curriculum should also be based on the premise that education can be impartial and disinterested. The guiding light is the search for truth and while there are few absolutes, drawing on the established disciplines of knowledge, it should be possible to better approximate the truth of things and to see the world objectively. The alternative, where knowledge and perception are subjective and relative, verges on epistemological suicide as such a stance makes it impossible to judge rationally between conflicting truth claims.

Any new curriculum, instead of celebrating diversity and cultural relativism, should acknowledge the enduring influence of a liberal-humanist view of education, associated with the rise of Western civilisation and that can be traced back over some hundreds of years. Since the time of the early Greek philosophers and sophists, evolving over the centuries and incorporating aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition and historical movements associated with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a liberal-humanist view of education is concerned, to use Matthew Arnold’s expression when writing about culture, with “getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Contrary to the way it is characterised by its cultural Left critics, a liberal-humanist view of education is very much concerned with developing independently minded critical thought, and what constitutes accepted knowledge and understanding evolves and changes with debate, new discoveries and the passage of time.

David Green, an analyst at the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, in summarising an address to the Mont Pelerin Society given by the historian Max Hartwell, describes a liberal-humanist view of education as follows:

“The content of a liberal education, he [Max Hartwell] says, should embrace civility, morality, objectivity, freedom and creativity. By civility he means respect for other people; by morality, the elementary maxims such as honesty and fairness; by objectivity, belief in the disinterested examination of facts and arguments, without fear or favour; by freedom, the principle that children should be equipped to exercise personal responsibility; and by creativity, belief in the advance of knowledge—not the perfectibility of man, but the possibility of progress.
“Hartwell points out that a liberal education can be more easily defined negatively than positively: it is not utilitarian or interest-serving; it is not vocational or professional; it is not specialist or one-sided; it is not conformist and uncritical; it is not education for doing: it is disinterested, it is general and universal, it is critical and inventive, it is education for thinking and understanding.”

Much of recent Australian curriculum is based on a one-size-fits-all approach. Not only are all subjects, or key learning areas, forced into the same straitjacket in terms of how they detailed and presented, but the expectation is that all students follow the same curriculum during the compulsory years of school (kindergarten to Year 10). In opposition to such a view is the approach adopted by many stronger-performing education systems, as measured by international mathematics and science tests, where there is a differentiated curriculum with either streaming in terms of ability or different pathways (academic, vocational and trade) depending on student interest and intended post-school destination. The proposed national curriculum should acknowledge the fact that not all students have the same abilities and interests or aspire to tertiary study.

Given the education establishment’s hostility and aversion to a liberal-humanist model of curriculum, I do not expect that the new curriculum’s designers will adopt any of the above.

Much of the Rudd government’s education agenda, and that of the ALP-dominated states and territories, is based on a statist approach. Instead of relying on individuals and communities to resolve problems and to address challenges, the solutions to social policy involve a centralised, bureaucratic, top-down approach. In education, the Commonwealth government’s intention is to introduce a national curriculum, a national plan for teacher training and certification and to invest millions into federally-funded programs to overcome educational disadvantage. The belief is that governments know best and that the most effective way to deliver policy outcomes is by utilising government bureaucracies and agencies, as well as the various like-minded professional associations and organisations.

An alternative to imposing a state-mandated curriculum on all Australian schools is to argue that, while the Commonwealth government is free to develop its curriculum, it should simply be one among many competing curriculum documents in the education marketplace, a marketplace in which schools, within certain guidelines, would be free to choose. In the same way that many non-government schools offer the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to state-controlled senior school certificates, schools should be free to adopt alternative curriculum models across kindergarten to Year 10 from both within Australia and internationally.

Advances in technology involving the internet make it easy and cost-effective for schools to identify curriculum best practice from around the world and to adapt approaches to suit their needs and interests. For some years now, many US schools have made use of the Singapore mathematics curriculum, including textbooks, in an attempt to raise standards and improve results. Most nations associated with the OECD and APEC have recently undergone curriculum reviews, and the curriculum documents developed provide a rich resource from which to choose. US-based organisations like E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation have developed curriculum programs that address essential knowledge, understanding and skills associated with the Western tradition, and much of what is available can be easily translated to the Australian context.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies and the author of Dumbing Down. He notes that, after initially being derided as a conservative Jeremiah, he has seen many of his criticisms of Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education now become accepted as ALP policy.

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