Article January 30, 2015

EduWeek Summer Series: The Australian Curriculum

In our third instalment of EduWeek’s Summer Series we take a look at the political battleground that is the Australian Curriculum and consider what effect the Federal Government’s review of the curriculum will likely have inside classrooms.

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The Australian Curriculum is a set of documents that codify what is to be taught in Australian schools. Administered by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the Australian Curriculum emerged from the ‘Education Revolution’ launched by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in 2007, a school reform push that brought huge change to the Australian education landscape (think NAPLAN testing, the My School website, the Digital Revolution etc.). Perhaps more significant than the Education Revolution platform itself was the expansion of Commonwealth involvement in education that came with it. Though the drift away from a strict distinction in state and federal responsibilities long pre-dates 2007, the Australian Curriculum and other programs represent a large expansion in the scope of dual responsibility in education.

Most of the present discussion around the Australian Curriculum is about its content: i.e. does it adequately tell the story of Indigenous Australia, pay tribute to British heritage or preach enlightenment values? Less talked about is the story of how we got to the point where school curriculum is no longer the sole responsibility of a state government, and what difference changes to curriculum actually make in the classroom.

The making of the Australian Curriculum

Up until recently state governments had primary responsibility over school curriculum matters. However, the Commonwealth was able to exert indirect influence over what was taught in schools by both funding national bodies (i.e. the Curriculum Development Centre in 1975) and specific programs (i.e. the Discovery Democracy civics curriculum, 1998-2004). A full-scale push to create an Australian-wide curriculum was attempted in the late 1980s under the Labor Education Minister John Dawkins, but fizzled out when states became reluctant to concede any direct responsibility to the Canberra. The idea was revived under Brendan Nelson’s term as Education Minister who in 2003 suggested that moving to a national curriculum could be beneficial:

“We have eight different educational jurisdictions, eight different commencement ages, eight different curricula. We would not be giving service to young Australians if we just accept that there are eight jurisdictions.”

Nothing progressed at great pace until a 2006 National Press Club address by Prime Minister John Howard railed against moral-relativism and a lack of narrative in the teaching of history in Australian schools. A belief that the states were unwilling or unable to correct this led Howard to push for a uniform standard of Australian History instruction in years 9 and 10, which was to be based on a guide the Commonwealth had commissioned. To ensure the states took notice of the Guide to the Teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10, Howard was not above using the power of the purse“We have made it clear it will be part of the funding negotiations… but we believe they will come on board because it makes sense.”

Before this could become a reality Labor won the 2007 election, putting Kevin Rudd in the Lodge with Julia Gillard as Education Minister. Labor brought to the election a policy of creating a truly Australia-wide curriculum, and had prosecuted the vision with an argument that:

“As a relatively small country in a globalised economy, it makes sense to have a national curriculum that lifts the standards of all students across our nation. The fact that each year around 340,000 families, including 80,000 school age students, relocate across State and Territory borders underlines the need for a national curriculum…  A national curriculum will mean that a student moving from Western Australia to Queensland or New South Wales to Victoria will not be disadvantaged by differences in the curriculum in each of these States.”

The consent of state governments was vital in getting a national curriculum over the line, and with Rudd blessed with cooperative Labor Premiers in every state and territory until late 2008, an agreement was finally reached to set up a body (later ACARA) to draft nation-wide curricula.

Where does the Australian Curriculum sit now? 

ACARA was funded to create an Australian Curriculum that would serve as a template to all states and territories, but only in English, History, Mathematics and Science (later Geography too) were ACARA’s curricula to be fully implemented by all Australian schools in years 1 to 10. Most states are now some-way down implementing the Australian Curriculum for these core subjects, but for the numerous other subjects ACARA has written curricula for, implementation is not nationally agreed and hence sporadic. With the election of the Coalition in late 2013, the drive to expand the Australian Curriculum’s coverage has petered out, with attention switching to ‘strengthening‘ the existing curriculum. Motivated by a perception of bias among other faults, a review of the curriculum was commissioned in early 2014 came back with recommendations that were broadly deemed on point. However, the extent to which any of the recommendations (covered in EduWeek here) will see implementation is dubious, with the last meeting of education ministers resolving to hold off on altering the existing curriculum, and to delay any further implementation or development of the Australian Curriculum.

What difference does the curriculum actually make?

To the public, a narrow meaning of curriculum exists: the skills and content mandated by the government. However, this isn’t all there is to curriculum. Politicians, public servants, school leaders and department heads all have their own take on what content and skills should be taught in any given class or year level, and of course so do teachers. Acknowledging all stakeholders is important, as the ability of any one to push their preferred curriculum is moderated by both their leverage over system and school level factors. Picture a humanities teacher stepping into a new job at a school. If the members of the school’s humanities domain have spent years revising and documenting their work collaboratively, and the domain head is effective, a new teacher will likely implement this curriculum without too much hesitation. Throw the same teacher into a school with an ineffective or disorganised domain team, and you might find they turn to directly interpreting the Australian Curriculum for guidance or rely on their past teaching experience.

This is worth mentioning as there is a widely held assumption that mandating X or Y is taught in the Australian Curriculum will see students learn about X or Y. It’s not that simple. Neither the Australian Curriculum or various state curricula actually provide blow-by-blow lesson plans. Instead they set out topics to cover and skills to acquire, for example year 7 mathematics students will learn to: “Investigate and use square roots of perfect square numbers.” Time constraints, a teacher’s familiarity with the subject matter, past experience in teaching, perceptions over relevancy and the availability of supporting resources will ultimately determine what is actually taught. There have been few state-based curricula that haven’t mandated civics education, but to this day few students leave school with a good grasp of how both our electoral and government systems work.

Ultimately this means that even if the recommendations of the Australian Curriculum review are implemented, we would be unlikely to see change in the classroom immediately. Organisational inertia, change fatigue and the many other stakeholders influence the scope and extent of change. This isn’t to say that the Australian Curriculum is likely to remain in stasis though. The Federal Government’s recent Roles and Responsibilities in Education issue paper has questioned the wisdom in shared federal-state responsibility for education, with the general tone suggesting a lesser role for the Federal Government is favoured. Any action taken in this regard may profoundly effect the future of the Australian Curriculum.