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The national curriculum debate: a call from the Boomer generation

By Graeden Horsell - posted Thursday, 1 March 2007

The wailing and gnashing of teeth by labor state governments and their education departments belies the historical fact that previous governments of such persuasions and their respective departments, have struggled to achieve a national curriculum themselves.

The present clarion call against Federal Education Minister Bishop’s national curriculum push is shallow politicising and is in no way grounded in rational education debate.

In June 1986 the Australian Education Council (AEC) called for a national collaborative effort in curriculum development in order to:

  1. maximise the positive effects of the nation's scarce curriculum development resources; and
  2. minimise unnecessary differences in curricula from state to state.

After all, through what logic do we accommodate eight different curricula in a population of just over 20 million.

But the AEC's 1993 decision not to endorse a national curriculum framework which it had developed over the period 1989-1993 left the impression, in some quarters, that a major education opportunity had been lost purely on political, as opposed to educational, grounds.

Regarding that decision, the prime minister of Australia at the time, Paul Keating, was reported as saying that the move to abandon work on a national curriculum “was one of the most depressing outcomes ever of Commonwealth State meetings … If we can't even give our kids a national curriculum after five years of work on this by the Commonwealth and States … then you do wonder if we can get to anywhere co-operatively” (The Australian, July 6, 1993).

In Darwin in July 1989 South Australia's Associate-Director General of Education (Curriculum) Garth Boomer, who has been described as “perhaps Australia's most creative curriculum expert”, gave a remarkably frank keynote address to a national joint conference of the Australian Reading Association and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. (Before his SA appointment he had been based in Canberra as Director of the Curriculum Development Centre and Chair of the Commonwealth Schools Commission).

Boomer became an unlikely, but extremely articulate, spokesperson for a national curriculum. Boomer experienced a personal struggle over the period 1989-1992 to balance his “progressive” education tendencies, developed over many years, with his uncomfortable feeling that the rhetoric and practices of “progressivism” had not delivered the goods. He became concerned that classroom teaching had not changed enough, and that needed gains with respect to equity considerations in education had not been achieved.


He admitted that although he was unhappy with what he found himself accepting, he had a growing belief that “such progressives, admirable though they may be in many respects, may be holding back the powerful growth of literacy in an increasingly harsh world”, that they might be like the philosopher-astronomer who, with his eyes fixed on the stars, “seduced himself into a ditch”.

He admitted to having to confront the depressing evidence that despite the rhetoric and courses and good intentions, no substantial gains in teaching literacy to children from a range of circumstances, if one key indicator of success was completion of a full 12 years of schooling, had been made.

Immediately following this statement, Boomer, who would become Chair of the Australasian Cooperative Assessment Program, indicated that he had come to believe that what was needed was a “standards-referenced” approach, which would require the development of books of examples of performance “set in context, arranged according to adjudged levels of performance”.

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About the Author

Graeden Horsell is Founder and Leader of the School Governance Alliance in South Australia, an education advocacy group representing the interests of state school governing councillors.

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