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A national curriculum is not necessarily an excellent curriculum

By Jenny Allum - posted Tuesday, 12 May 2009

I am on record as having serious reservations about a national curriculum.

I want to make it clear at the outset: we are not starting to design the most appropriate system of governance for the whole of our country from scratch. We have had, in existence for over 100 years, three tiers of governments - Commonwealth, state and local. We don’t have a clean slate from which to start. We have a history. The state and territory parliaments continue. We have a Constitution which specifies areas of responsibility for the different levels of government and there are well defined processes by which we, as a democracy, can change those constitutional arrangements. Most importantly, we have a history of education in each state; a tradition; an ethos.

No matter what the Commonwealth government may wish, education is, by our Constitution, a state responsibility. That means that, whatever is done at the Commonwealth level, the reality is that any state government can - and is likely to - reject the work of the National Curriculum Board if the proposals do not suit the educational or political wish of that government.


Should a state government not support the final curriculum documents designed by the National Curriculum Board, there would be a stand-off for some time; some behind-the scenes negotiations would take place; possibly there would be some financial pressure exerted by the Commonwealth government on the state. And of course there would be headlines in all the major newspapers.

That’s a political reality which we just can’t avoid in our country, whether we like it or not. And hence the fact is that the National Curriculum Board will want to and indeed will have to do all it can to avoid such a confrontation with any state. The players in all this are political beings, and the result is that they will, by necessity, be forced into compromise as they design the structure and content of the curriculum - and political compromise will never result in educational excellence!

Those who support a national curriculum in Australia argue most often on two grounds: that a country of 20 or so million people can’t support the number of different curricula which we have in Australia, and that children of parents transferred interstate are disadvantaged by discontinuities in curricula across state borders. They will often point to England, which, with 50 million people, has one curriculum - and so, they argue should we. They less often remark that, Scotland, with a population comparable with Victoria, has its own curriculum. They also don’t often concede that the United States, the most mobile population on earth, has no national curriculum. The real issue here, as far as I’m concerned, is not the number of people in the country. It’s the vastness of the distances between us: the distances between states - geographically, and in our educational cultures.

The National Curriculum Board claims to value a consultative curriculum development process. I just don’t see it! There were four academics appointed to write the Framing Papers for the different subjects. How were they appointed? Using what process?

There are reference groups formed in each subject area. Whom do they represent? Was there a transparent process used to form these - to gain representation from all of the different stakeholders? One doubts it, when more than 50 per cent of the Mathematics Advisory Group, for example, comes from Victoria.

There are no clear procedures outlined in any documentation I have seen for methods of consultation, for representation. The National Curriculum Board’s website says nothing about whom they will consult, or whom they regard as the peak bodies in education. The best you can see is that they encourage all teachers to send in comments online. What they do with the submissions is not clear.


Consider for a moment the consultation forums held in Melbourne last October. My school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, had six teachers there, at least one in each of the subject-specific meetings. No funding was provided for any teachers to attend these forums. My staff were able to attend because SCEGGS could afford to pay all the associated costs. Is this an example of a national consultation process that will ensure that all schools - from every region and every background - have an opportunity to contribute? And for those who were unable to attend, where is the public report from these forums, describing the discussions and differing perspectives?

In New South Wales, we are used to the NSW Board of Studies, which is committed to collaborative work with parents, teachers and schools. At every level there are representatives of the different stakeholders in the production of curriculum materials - around the Board table itself; in curriculum reference panels; Board of Studies Curriculum Committees in every subject during the design of a syllabus; in working parties and forums established from time to time. The Board of Studies has liaison officers in each region in NSW to work closely with schools. Board of Studies officers travel the state to consult on new initiatives. The Board of Studies recognises that there is enormous diversity in NSW and that any NSW curriculum needs to work as well in Bondi as it does in Broken Hill. We have a very strong curriculum as a result of this process. How different when you compare this with the consultations on any national initiative, current or past.

The best education happens in our schools when the approach to curriculum, assessment and professional development all complement each other. The National Curriculum Board is developing curricula in Mathematics, English, Science and History, with Geography and Languages to come “later”. What message does that send to Social Studies, Art, Music, Physical Education and the other subjects included in the curriculum in different states and at different stages?

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First published in The Spray ed. 1, 2009, a publication of the NSW Institute of Teachers.

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About the Author

Jenny Allum is Head of the SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

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