Alota Lima : NATIONAL CURRICULUM: an opportunity lost?

The problem with political responses to real issues is that time, rather than quality is privileged. Preference is given to strategies which are achievable within the three-year political term, are cheap and have inbuilt political deniability of responsibility should they fail. The latest attempt at framing a national curriculum is a classic example.

Because of Julia Gillard’s April 2008 commitment to delivering a national curriculum within three years, there has been no time for a real national conversation on developing a conceptual framework for, or the values behind, what is a significant step in the history of education for Australia, and our best opportunity to create a national curriculum that is both world class and culturally relevant to young Australians.
That requires consultation, particularly with those who implement the curriculum. However, despite the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA] providing input access through its website, holding meetings and contacting largely secondary-focussed state professional associations, little consultation has taken place. Primary and prep teachers, regional and remote teachers, special needs teachers, teachers whose disciplines lie outside the “famous” four of maths, English, history and science, indigenous and Asian focus groups and other essential stakeholders clearly did not feel “consulted”.

This has huge ramifications. First, as Dr. Alan Reid wrote in his Professional Voice article National Curriculum Collaboration A Case of Deja Vu: “Unless those who are expected to implement curriculum are engaged in the conceptualisation phase, the initiatives will be either ignored or simply fitted within existing understandings/paradigm and shaped to reflect these. It is the process of thinking through the knotty conceptual issues that enable educators to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, to recognise alternatives and to understand what is needed to make new approaches successful”. Second, people cannot identify with something into which they have had so little input.

No agreement has been reached concerning the purpose of schooling, the curriculum’s conceptual foundations and the values underpinning the decision-making. As Kerry Kennedy wrote in Curriculum Perspectives, curriculum debates are “not merely academic – they are debates about a nation’s soul. About its values. About its beliefs”.

But instead of debating the hard questions, we are informed that the curriculum will comprise mathematics, science, English and history, supplemented by “general capabilities”. Other subject area lobby groups have fought to be included in this list and some, like geography, have been successful. This bitsy and political approach to curriculum development, however, is far from ideal.

We now have an initiative with no clear rationale, some goals [outlined by MCEETYA in 2008] but no meaningful way to link them to the national curriculum and, as Reid stated in his keynote address to the 2009 Australian Curriculum Studies Association conference, “no way to address the huge issue of how curricula with different conceptual bases and architecture can coexist”. He added. “This problem is particularly acute at the senior secondary end, where there is a huge variation in methods of assessment and reporting, compulsory subjects and so on. Unless this conceptual difficulty is address before writing starts it is inevitable that the lowest common denominator will be adopted” Education is not only about the development of human capital, as suggested by Julia Gillard when she claimed that “the new national curriculum will be future-oriented and will equip our young people with the essential skills, knowledge and capabilities to compete internationally and thrive in the globalised economics of the future”. According to Dr. Reid: “Such a stance marginalises the cultural, social, political and relational aspects of education. It understands students as potential workers and consumers, rather than as local and global citizens”.

So, is this just another déjà vu moment of failed curriculum initiatives and lost opportunities, or will ACARA and the federal government extend the deadlines to allow real debate and a serious attempt at conceptualising the country’s educational future?

{First published in Q’ld Teachers’ Journal, 12 Feb., 2010. Vol.33, No. 1 . Page 21}