National curriculum: written, but not designed

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The Drum 14th October, 2014

Does the national curriculum even exist?

Much press coverage of the Abbott Government's review of the national curriculum has focused on the "culture wars" bits.

The report, written by Kevin Donnelly and Kenneth Wiltshire, identifies a stark absence of Australia's Judeo-Christian and Western Civilisation heritage in the curriculum.

But the most important findings concern the national curriculum as a piece of public policy.

For the most part Donnelly and Wiltshire support a national curriculum. But they write, almost casually, that, "If the definition of a national curriculum includes that it must be implemented comprehensively, with certainty, and consistently, then Australia does not currently have a national school curriculum".

There is widespread confusion about how tightly teaching should cohere to the curriculum. Is the national curriculum a strict syllabus, or a "guideline", or just "a bit of a framework"? Is it compulsory or optional? How much can the curriculum be adapted to suit teachers and student bodies?

And, most importantly, who decides?

While in theory adopting the curriculum is a requirement for states and sectors to receive national school funding, in practice there's no way to ensure compliance.

While Donnelly and Wiltshire conclude that most stakeholders like, or have come to accept, the idea of a national curriculum in the abstract, they also find that this acceptance is based on the curriculum's vagaries. The national curriculum is in the eye of the beholder.

For all the hundreds of pages of text that has been produced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), in practice the curriculum is a surprisingly blank slate onto which various education players can impose their own ideas about what ought to be taught and how. It's "all things to all people".

That is, the national curriculum is not really a national curriculum at all.

I argued on The Drum in January that the national curriculum ought to be abolished. But what we have now is the worst of both worlds - a curriculum whose implementation is deeply uncertain and confused.

The national curriculum is a classic case study of how political imperatives churn out undercooked and poorly thought out policy programs - even when the process is handed over to a cadre of experts.

In 2008 Commonwealth education minister Julia Gillard managed to get all Australian education ministers to agree to the "Melbourne Declaration" - a statement of intent about the way forward for the national curriculum. You can read it here.

The development of the curriculum itself was then handed over to ACARA, and ACARA got to work writing up the subjects.

But the Melbourne Declaration was a statement of broad principles whose big takeout was an overall agreement to develop a national curriculum in the first place.

The Melbourne Declaration was not an investigation into the philosophy that a national curriculum should adopt. It was not a discussion about the educational foundation of the new curriculum. It was not an argument for a national curriculum - it was just instructions to get one written and introduced.

Donnelly and Wiltshire call this the "missing step" problem. There was a lot of discussion and consultation about what should go into each individual subject. But at no time was there a detailed, rigorous investigation of what we actually wanted out of the curriculum overall, what values should underpin it (beyond motherhood statements like the "curriculum will include a strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills") and how students' time should be divided and balanced.

Hence the overcrowded subjects. ACARA dumped more and more material in the curriculum to appease various education lobbies, untethered by any ideas of what the curriculum, as a whole, should look like.

In other words, the national curriculum was written, but never designed.

The worst example of the missing step problem is also the most controversial part of the curriculum - the so-called "cross curriculum priorities". In the words of ACARA, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia, and sustainability are "embedded in all learning areas".

These priorities have always been Exhibit A in the case that the curriculum is deeply infused with ideological bias - one might that ideology has been embedded in all learning areas.

But why are the priorities there at all?

Donnelly and Wiltshire find that "not a lot of thought has been given to the actual concept of cross-curriculum priorities" - they seem to have been conceived by education ministers and shoehorned into the process. It appears we're the only country that has such a thing. "No attempt seems to have been made ... to conceptualise the cross-curriculum priorities in educational terms."

In her just published memoirs Julia Gillard says she was "adamant" that experts, not politicians, needed to design the curriculum: "There was absolutely no political interference in the content."

But that just isn't true. It was education ministers - professional politicians - that came up with the cross-curriculum priorities, not experts. And the much-praised experts didn't second-guess their orders.

So much for a non-political national curriculum.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has said the Abbott Government will take on board the findings of the Donnelly-Wiltshire review, reduce overcrowding, and bring the curriculum "back to basics".

Funnily enough that's exactly what Gillard said when she became education minister in 2007 and kicked off this national curriculum project in the first place.

An enormous amount of political capital has been vested in the national curriculum process. For decades educationalists have treated the national curriculum as the great unpursued reform, akin to floating the dollar and lowering tariffs, and essential for our "maturing" as a nation.

That, when given the opportunity, they stuffed it up so comprehensively is a major indictment on Australia's education establishment.

This article was originally published on ABC's The Drum, available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-14/berg-national-curriculum-written-but-not-designed/5811108