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Issue #1446      10 March 2010

How good is the national curriculum?

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Kevin Rudd followed up his announcement of the proposed federal takeover of the nation’s hospitals with the unveiling of the proposed new National Curriculum for the nation’s schools.

This innovation was widely welcomed. The inconsistency between the education curricula of the various states has been a vexed issue ever since the introduction of compulsory education in the 19th century. Among other things, a national curriculum has the potential to facilitate the adjustment process for children whose families move interstate, and to provide a more consistent basis for tertiary education.

The announcement of the National Curriculum was doubtless good news for the government, which has recently been the subject of severe criticism for having facilitated the introduction of school league tables by setting up the My School website.

The government has denied that its intention was to establish league tables, but the information provided in My School is ready-made for a simple conversion to league table form. Sure enough, one firm has already done so, using the information to produce league tables that can be purchased for a given fee over the internet. The firm’s manager has declared that his operations are well within the limits of the law, and that his firm will continue operations as long as the My School data is collected and published.

What is the national curriculum?

The National Curriculum is a program and description of subjects that the government considers to be essential for primary and secondary education. It does not prevent state education authorities from utilising additional material that may, for example, be considered particularly relevant to that state, but the teaching of National Curriculum subjects is mandatory as a minimum requirement.

The Curriculum for History, English, Science and Maths has been released, and the proposed requirements for Geography and Languages are to follow. Introduction of the Curriculum will be subject to a consultation process with the public and interested organisations, including the teachers’ unions. Consultation and resources are critical to the effective implementation of the Curriculum.

Angelo Gavrielatos, federal president of the Australian Education Union has criticised the process, noting that: “The tight time frame of consultation (closes in May) will not allow for the meaningful collective engagement of teachers in the process”.

He also commented that funding reforms have not accompanied the Curriculum proposal. “Educational outcomes may be improved if a curriculum is properly supported and resourced - that includes money for teaching materials and most importantly, professional development or teachers”.

Reviewing the Curriculum

The Rudd government’s description of the National Curriculum as “back to basics” is remarkably similar to the description given to education reforms proposed by the former Howard government, for example in the special emphasis placed on grammar in the teaching of English. However, at this stage the National Curriculum differs markedly in its treatment of various subjects. History, for example, is to be taught in primary school, and is to be treated as a subject in its own right, rather than being melded into social studies, and the treatment of history is very different.

There will doubtless be a need to revise and modify the Curriculum to improve its effectiveness and relevance, and various organisations have already made suggestions. For example, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English has expressed some concern that the extension of the literacy component in the English course will reduce the amount of literature studied in detail. The Australian Council of Science Deans has also criticised the division of science into three separate streams.

The treatment of history may also require modification, even serious revision. However, it is already the source of the greatest demands for modification from the most conservative elements in Australian society.

Despite having made a number of major progressive initiatives (for example the apology to Aboriginal Australians), the Rudd government is still, by its very own description, a conservative government. This has been demonstrated by its failure to follow through on its progressive initiatives, and also, in many cases, its adoption of similar policies which barely differ from those of its predecessor. It is entirely possible that close inspection of the proposals for the teaching of history under the National Curriculum will reveal reactionary aspects.

The Liberal-National conservative coalition has already complained bitterly about the Curriculum’s history syllabus, describing it as embodying a “black armband” view of Australian history (a major insult to Aboriginal people). The Curriculum emphasises the impact of global events and Asian history, and the conservatives are complaining that the history syllabus does not place sufficient emphasis on the importance of British history.

The conservative view will doubtless be forcefully borne home to the Rudd government during the consultation period. It remains to be seen, then, whether the positive aspects of the national curriculum will be retained in detail, or whether the ALP will wilt and make modifications more in keeping with pressure to tow the line of conservative orthodoxy. Reactionary aspects of the history syllabus should be rejected, and pressure to modify the progressive aspects of the proposed National Curriculum should be resisted at all costs.   

Next article –  Challenges for humanity on IWD 2010

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