The Ideology of the National English Curriculum

The Hawke, Keating and Howard governments had a proud record of reform in many areas but, when it comes to the school curriculum, Julia Gillard has achieved more in two years than her predecessors managed in a quarter of a century. The draft national curriculum released this week for kindergarten-to-Year 10 is a major achievement setting out a path for improved teaching of English, history, mathematics and science. Parents of children who have left school might wonder why previous governments did not act instead of talking and dithering. The Rudd government is promoting the curriculum as “back to basics” and for once the spin has a solid basis.

—Australian, editorial, March 5, 2010

Judged by its media reception, best illustrated by the Australian’s editorial, the Rudd–Gillard national curriculum is a resounding success. The new curriculum, supposedly, represents a back-to-basics approach in areas like phonics, grammar and punctuation and adopts a disinterested and academically rigorous approach to teaching English, history, mathematics and science. With headlines like “Black armband history dumped” (Australian, February 26), “Grammar time: Gillard outlines curriculum plans” (ABC News, February 24) “A sound beginning” (Age, March 2) and “Letters, sounds at core of new curriculum” (Australian, February 25) the overwhelming impression is that Australian parents can rest easy as, unlike failed and fiscally reckless programs like computers in schools, Building the Education Revolution and technical centres in secondary schools, Gillard has finally delivered.

In fact, however, nothing could be further from the truth. While the proposed curriculum is not as blatantly left-of-centre and politically correct as previous state and territory curriculums, or as dumbed-down, an analysis shows that Australian schools, as of 2011, will be forced to implement a curriculum that is second-rate and ideologically bent. Before analysing the English curriculum as evidence of this failed approach, a number of observations need to be made about the politics and recent history of curriculum and school education.

The Howard government adopted a conservative line in education, represented by increased school accountability, supporting parents’ right to choose Catholic and independent schools, and a traditional approach to teaching subjects like literature and the nation’s history. In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, Kevin Rudd and then shadow education minister, Stephen Smith, copied the conservative agenda in an attempt to nullify education as an electoral disadvantage and to win the votes of the so-called Howard battlers.

Since assuming her role as Minister for Education, Julia Gillard has continued the ALP’s race to the middle ground by making school results public (via the My School website), and arguing that British settlement was not an invasion and that students should be taught correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Notwithstanding the bleating of the true believers, such as the Australian Education Union, that the ALP has turned its back on the Left by assuming John Howard’s mantle in education, it is clear, at least in terms of rhetoric, that Rudd and Gillard see votes in maintaining the course they have chosen. Such are public concerns about falling educational standards, the sub-standard and ideologically biased nature of state and territory curriculums and the need to hold schools more accountable, that it would take a very courageous government to do otherwise.

But is Gillard as educationally conservative as she makes out, and can the ALP’s education revolution be trusted to deliver? Judging by Julia Gillard’s membership of the Victorian Socialist Left, her involvement with the Fabian Society and the fact that one of her mentors is Joan Kirner, who was responsible for Victoria’s dumbed-down and ideologically-driven Victorian Certificate of Education, there are doubts. Beneath the rhetoric about academic rigour and the need for a balanced curriculum beats the heart of a left-wing partisan committed to using the education system to overthrow the status quo and to change society. Gillard, on being asked three times, has failed to guarantee that Catholic and independent schools will not suffer financially as a result of the impending review of the Howard-inspired school funding formula. It’s also the case that as Minister for Education, Gillard has committed billions of dollars to overcome what she defines as educational disadvantage caused by gender, ethnicity and class, even though the evidence shows that Australia is one of the most socially mobile societies amongst OECD nations and socioeconomic background is only one factor amongst many explaining educational success or failure.

There are also doubts about the rigour and success of the ALP’s education revolution given that the government is employing the very individuals and professional organisations to develop and implement its policies that are largely responsible for the current parlous state of Australia’s education system. In relation to the national curriculum, take the example of Tony Mackay, the Deputy Chair of the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA) and Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. When the much discredited outcomes-based education model of curriculum was introduced to Australia, Mackay was involved in the tour of the new curriculum’s American guru, William Spady. At the height of the Howard government’s attack on Australia’s politically correct curriculum (where postmodern gobbledygook ruled and graffiti and SMS messages were considered equal to the classics), Mackay helped organise two national meetings of professional groups to mount a campaign against so-called conservative critics.

Barry McGaw, the Chair of ACARA, over the years has been a consultant of choice to ALP state governments, undertaking curriculum reviews in the ACT and New South Wales that undermined the then academically rigorous Senior School Certificates. McGaw endorses the left-wing line attacking non-government schools as socially divisive and perpetuates the myth that Australian education fails to overcome social disadvantage. Stuart Macintyre, the ex-communist historian involved in running Geoffrey Blainey out of Melbourne University, has taken the lead role in the history curriculum, and with subject associations like the Australian Association for the Teaching of English involved in writing the English syllabus, it should be no surprise that little has changed. ACARA’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Hill, was the education bureaucrat largely responsible for introducing Joan Kirner’s Victorian Certificate of Education, a senior school certificate so widely regarded as New Age and sub-standard that it was one of the reasons why the ALP under Kirner lost government. McGaw, Mackay, Macintyre and Hill are very much part of the education establishment that sets the agenda for Australian schools, regardless of the minister or government in charge.

Historically, the school curriculum has given pre-eminence to discrete subjects such as English, mathematics, science, geography and history. Such disciplines have been codified over the years and, while open to revision and change, each contains a unique way of ordering knowledge and understanding, relating to the world and testing truth claims. To be educated, by definition, involves being initiated into such bodies of knowledge and taking part in what Michael Oakeshott describes as a conversation that predates the individual and is continuing. Beginning in the 1960s, the Left attacked the academic curriculum as elitist, obsolete and guilty of reinforcing the status quo. The Keating government’s attempt at developing a national curriculum during the 1990s weakened the academic approach to curriculum by forcing schools to teach so-called areas of learning from a politically correct stance, involving gender, indigenous, multicultural and technology perspectives. An argument was also put that education could no longer be impartial or valued for its own sake; education was about empowerment, liberation and teaching generic skills like working in teams, thinking and collecting and analysing information.

While the rhetoric of more recent ALP-inspired documents like Federalist Paper No. 1 and the Melbourne Declaration pay lip service to an academic approach to the curriculum, the reality is that the politically correct perspectives and generic skills evident in the previous attempt at developing a national curriculum are very much evident in the Rudd–Gillard model. Every subject in the proposed national curriculum has to be interpreted in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dimensions, sustainable patterns of living, and Australia’s engagement with Asia. Given the history of Australia’s education establishment, including subject associations, teacher training institutions and school textbooks, teaching such perspectives from a left-wing, New Age viewpoint, it should be obvious how the new curriculum will be delivered in schools.

As to why such approaches are privileged, the curriculum fails to offer any convincing rationale; one can only assume it’s because they fit the prevailing ALP fetish for all things Chinese and the left-wing consensus so prevalent among the Balmain basket-weavers and Carlton latte set that Aboriginal culture is worth emulating. While Australia, geographically and in terms of trade and business, is part of Asia, the nation’s history, culture and institutions are derived from the UK and Ireland, the overwhelming majority of Australians describe themselves as Christian, and the freedoms and way of life we cherish are only possible because of the nation’s Western heritage and Judeo-Christian tradition. It is no accident that Australian parliamentary sessions begin with the Lord’s Prayer and that Christian morality underpins much of our legal system. In relation to literature, instead of being forced to study dreamtime texts and Confucian analects, a more convincing argument can be put that all students should encounter those literary texts that are part of the Western cultural tradition and that embody the morals, values, beliefs and sentiments that make us unique.

Further undermining the integrity of subjects like English, history, mathematics and science is the requirement that teachers deal with the following general capabilities: literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology, thinking skills, creativity, intercultural understanding, ethical behaviour and teamwork, self-management and social competence. In the brave new world of the national curriculum, where compliance is tied to funding and every school, government and non-government, will be held publicly accountable in implementing the ALP government’s agenda, it’s clear that schools will no longer be free to follow their own educational philosophy or to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities. That faith-based schools are in danger of losing their autonomy is not only because of the imposition of a state-mandated, secular curriculum; of equal concern is the Rudd government’s intention to force schools to abide by its social justice and anti-discrimination policies. While faith-based schools currently have freedom in their employment and enrolment policies, there is every chance that such flexibility will be lost as schools will lose government funding if they refuse to implement government policy.

The Australian Constitution gives the states responsibility for school education, and the Common-wealth government does not own any schools or employ any teachers. While the two levels of government have collaborated for some time in implementing various policies and programs via ministerial councils like the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, such as the Disadvantaged Schools Program under the Whitlam government’s Schools Commission and the Keating government’s attempt at a national curriculum, generally speaking, the federal government has played a secondary role to state governments and their various education bureaucracies. The Rudd–Gillard education revolution signifies a fundamental change in Commonwealth–state relations as it involves a raft of national partnership agreements that are highly centralised, bureaucratic and intrusive. All roads lead to Canberra. This highly statist and inflexible approach, best illustrated by the fiasco of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, where government schools are being forced to accept off-the-shelf designs and projects that often replicate existing infrastructure, flies in the face of research suggesting that local control and flexibility are the touchstones of stronger-performing schools.

OECD research undertaken by Ludger Woessmann analysing the characteristics of the education systems that achieve the strongest results in international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment concludes that school autonomy is essential, especially with regard to staffing, budgets and curriculum focus. The ACER’s Gary Marks, on analysing why Catholic and independent schools out-perform government schools, even after accounting for students’ socio-economic background, also argues that schools freed from bureaucratic, centralised control are in a much better position to perform well.

Ironically, while Rudd and Gillard justify their education revolution in terms of raising standards and strengthening schools, their approach is the one most likely to achieve the opposite result. Once again, the BER program offers an illustration; where non-government schools have the freedom and flexibility to choose whatever infrastructure best suits their needs, government schools have to accept whatever head office dictates.

As English is a compulsory subject in all states and territories and central to what it means to be educated, it is important to analyse it in some detail. Australia is a Western nation and our language and literature are built on the English language and cultural tradition. The line from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, “your native language is the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible”, and Harold Bloom’s concept of the Western canon suggest that no amount of politically correct clap-trap about the importance of indigenous and Asian texts can erase the fact that central to English as a subject are those enduring literary works that are part of the Western tradition. The national curriculum, by describing literary works as cultural artefacts, exploding the definition of literature to include “multi-modal texts”, and suggesting that students should spend time studying “tween mags, avatars, social networking and manga”, further undermines the place of literature in the classroom. On reading the national English curriculum, one can envisage the situation where students experience ten years of school without any encounter with such seminal authors as Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, Austen, Orwell, Lawson or Malouf.

The curriculum’s writers will argue that literature has a place in the classroom, as it mentions the need to introduce students to classic texts. Unfortunately, by giving equal emphasis to “contemporary indigenous literature and world literature” and “texts from Asia” the importance of the Western literary canon is compromised. The statements that students should “recognise, explain and value differing viewpoints about the world’s cultures” and “recognise the richness of other cultures” reinforce a sense of cultural relativism. The belief is that all texts are cultural artefacts of equal value and there is nothing significant or unique about those works associated with the Western canon that have stood the test of time and say something enduring and profound about human experience.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of how literature is taught in education faculties and school classrooms is theory, involving: reader response, neo-Marxist, feminist, postmodern, deconstruction, post-colonial, gay and queer theory. Given the public hostility to such approaches, illustrated by John Howard’s description of senior school English courses as embracing “gobbledygook” and fears about Othello being deconstructed in terms of power and the rights of victim groups in the New South Wales syllabus, it is understandable why those responsible for the English curriculum have steered clear of referring to theory in too obvious a way. Unfortunately for students, an analysis of the English national curriculum reveals that theory is still present.

The belief that “interpretations of literary texts can be shaped by individual responses” is in line with the central tenet of reader response theory arguing that the author’s meaning or intent is secondary to the individual’s interpretation. The statement “that texts are created and interpreted within the context of other texts and are influenced by cultural perspectives”, while true in one sense, lends itself to analysing (or deconstructing) texts in terms of politically correct perspectives and ignoring the fact that some literary texts are of greater value than others. One of the more obvious examples of the dominance of left-wing ideology in English teaching is “critical literacy”. Drawing on the writings of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire, the belief is that texts must be analysed in terms of their role in reinforcing capitalist hegemony over the disempowered and disadvantaged, such as women, migrants and the poor. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is considered politically incorrect, as a happy ending is defined as marrying the prince, Romeo and Juliet is flawed as it privileges heterosexual relationships, and Heart of Darkness is unacceptable because of its disparaging portrait of blacks. The statements in the English curriculum that students be taught how language “can include, distance or marginalise others” and that all texts should be analysed in terms of “social, cultural and political issues” suggest that while not as obvious as previous curriculum documents, there is still a focus on “critical literacy”.

Instead of enjoying literature for its own sake and ensuring that students are taught to read with sensitivity, discrimination and understanding, there is also a sense that much of what is expected of students is unduly influenced by the type of theory more suited to undergraduate study. At Year 10, for example, students are asked to “explore and discuss concepts of cultural and literary tradition in response to literary texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts” and “compare the language features and structures of literary texts which were created in different contexts or modes”. As classroom teachers well understand, such tasks would prove difficult for first-year undergraduates; many Year 10 students find it difficult simply to read a substantial literary work from start to finish.

In opposition to the more traditional approach to English teaching, one where teachers teach, students learn and there is an agreed body of knowledge, understanding and skills that need to be addressed at each year level, the more progressive model of English, described as the personal growth or child-centred model and prevalent since the late 1960s, bases learning on the world of the student. While nodding in the direction of the more formal, didactic approach, the national curriculum argues that teachers should “provide students with learning experiences that meet their needs and interests” and argues that “students learn at different rates and in different stages”—implying that it is wrong for teachers to expect students to master a set standard of work at each year level.

Fears that the integrity of English as a subject is being undermined are also backed up by the statements, “English is one of the many languages spoken in Australia” and “Standard Australian English is one of many social dialects used in Australia”. By equating standard English with Aboriginal English and other dialects, those responsible for the curriculum confuse what is Australia’s mainstream language of business, politics and academia with relatively minor and limited forms of communication. In addition, valuable teaching time is taken from teaching students the lingua franca of the international community.

Australia’s previous attempt to develop a national curriculum during the years of the Keating government adopted an outcomes-based education (OBE) model of curriculum. One of the many shortcomings of OBE is the vague and generalised way in which the curriculum is detailed, making it impossible for teachers to know what they are expected to teach. Such is the disdain in which OBE is now held that the term has been air-brushed from the educational lexicon, but elements of it survive in the proposed national English curriculum.

While many of the statements are succinct and clear, there are also many that fail the clarity test. Telling teachers that Year 1 students should be able to “interpret and make inferences from texts” fails to detail the level of difficulty or the nature of the texts. Suggesting that Year 2 students should “identify aspects of different types of literary texts that entertain” leaves it unclear as to what aspects should be dealt with and, given the exploded definition of literary texts adopted by the curriculum, whether students’ time would be better spent dealing with some types of texts instead of others.

Asking Year 3 students to “use research skills to locate, select and use sources”, gives no detail as to what research skills teachers should introduce, their level of difficulty or the types of sources involved. Similarly, the statement asking that Year 4 students “distinguish between a range of text types and relate their structure and language features to context” is so broad and generalised that what occurs in one classroom can be very different from what occurs in another. Other statements are so obvious and self-evident that they fail to offer anything meaningful or useful in helping teachers design a worthwhile English curriculum: “language can shape different identities in different contexts”, “rhetorical devices can be used to persuade others” and “texts move through particular stages to achieve their purpose”.

One of the prominent disagreements in English teaching over recent years concerns the most effective way to teach young children how to read. Broadly speaking, the so-called reading wars involve those committed to the whole-language model and those arguing that teachers should employ a phonics and phonemic awareness approach. In the English-speaking world, since the arrival of the personal growth approach to English in the late 1960s, one where essential content is secondary to students’ immediate interests and discovery learning and creativity are considered more important than formal teaching, the whole-language model has reigned supreme. Based on the mistaken belief that learning to read is as natural and spontaneous as learning to talk, teachers are told to “immerse” children in a rich language environment and they will soon become effective readers. The more structured and systematic phonics model, which assumes that the reading process is decidedly unnatural and children have to be taught the relationship between letters and sounds, has fallen by the wayside.

In part, due to concerns about high rates of illiteracy and falling standards, a series of parliamentary inquiries and commissioned reports in England, the USA, New Zealand and Australia over the last five to eight years have all argued that the whole-language approach is flawed and that classrooms must return to teaching phonics and phonemic awareness. Such is the tide in favour of the more traditional approach that both major political parties, before the 2007 federal election, committed themselves to mandating it if elected to government. It should be no surprise, then, that the proposed national English curriculum includes phonics in the early years as the recommended way to teach children to read. At kindergarten teachers are told to teach “phonic and word knowledge” and “sounds, letters and words”; “spoken sounds can be written down using the letters of the alphabet” and “phonemic awareness including how to recognise rhymes, syllables and single sounds (phonemes) in short spoken words”. At Year 1, phonics appears again, teaching “how to manipulate sounds in spoken words including phoneme deletion and substitution”.

While nodding in the direction of phonics, a close reading shows, as with the English national curriculum in general, that little has changed. The reality is that the proposed curriculum undermines any commitment to the more effective approach to teaching beginning reading by recommending that teachers adopt many of the strategies and techniques championed by advocates of whole language. Instead of teaching the relationship between letters, words and sounds in a structured and formal way, the whole-language model is based on the premise that children can guess what words mean by their context or by looking at related pictures. The statement, at the kindergarten level, that children should “use grammatical and phonic knowledge, and meaning and context to read and view print and media texts” reduces phonics to simply one strategy out of four and ignores the research that concludes that it is the key to learning how to read. The statement at Year 1 that children should be able to identify a book’s purpose by “illustrations in the book” and that children should use “context” to recognise unfamiliar words, in addition to phonic knowledge, reinforces the mistaken belief that guesswork is an effective way to teach children how to read.

The curriculum document’s confusion over what constitutes effective English teaching is further illustrated by its treatment of how writing should be taught and the place of information and computer technology and “multi-modal texts” in the classroom. On one hand, teachers are told that an important focus from kindergarten to Year 7 is to ensure that children are taught to “handwrite fluently and legibly using correct letter formation”. On the other hand, teachers are told that multi-modal texts and computers must have a central place in the classroom. At kindergarten, teachers are told that children should “use a keyboard to compose short texts”, Year 1 children are expected to understand the “simple functions of word processing” and at Year 3 be able to “use a word-processing program with growing speed and efficiency”.

As classroom teachers know, one of the prime reasons why students’ handwriting has deteriorated over recent years is because of the prevalence of computers and multi-modal texts. Not only are students more relaxed and conversant with iconographic media and less confident with print, but also many are physically incapable of writing with pen and paper in a legible and fluent manner. While the solution adopted by Montessori schools, involving banning computers from the classroom, might sound extreme, it certainly makes sense to restrict using computers in the early years and focus on teaching children how to write manually and read print. Limiting children’s exposure to computers and multi-modal texts is also recommended given the argument put by researchers, such as Professor Susan Greenfield from Oxford University, that the new forms of communication adversely affect cognitive development, especially during the early years of learning.

The proposed national English curriculum is not as blatantly politically correct or dumbed-down as previous state and territory frameworks and syllabuses. The document acknowledges the need to teach phonics and literature, and adopts a back-to-basics approach to grammar. In one sense, it’s understandable why Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd boast that they have delivered a back-to-basics curriculum. A close reading, though, shows that little has changed and that the same flaws and weaknesses evident in previous curriculum documents are still present.

That English classrooms will continue to suffer from falling standards and students will achieve low levels of literacy, including cultural literacy, is more certain given the influence of teacher training institutions and subject associations like the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. Surveys show that beginning teachers lack the expertise and confidence to teach phonics, the more traditional approaches to grammar and classic literature, as such aspects of English have long since disappeared from teaching courses. The AATE is a staunch advocate of critical literacy, whole-language and a child-centred model of pedagogy. Given the association’s involvement in professional development and bodies like the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (the AATE President, Mark Howie, is a member of the ACARA committee responsible for the English curriculum) it should be obvious that talk about a more rigorous and balanced curriculum is more spin than substance.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute ( He taught for eighteen years in government and non-government secondary schools and has been a member of the Victorian HSC English Panel of Examiners, the Victorian Board of Studies and the Commonwealth Discovering Democracy Program. He is the author of Dumbing Down and Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (Connor Court Publishing).

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