Submission: Review of the National Curriculum

Meredith Doig / 27 February 2014

Why a national curriculum?

The national curriculum arose ostensibly in response to those Australians whose jobs took them to different states and territories (eg, the military) or who for other reasons moved from one state to another. They expressed frustration that their children suffered because of the lack of comparability between different states’ education systems.  A national curriculum provided an opportunity to improve the educational standards of states or territories that lagged behind.  It also has economic advantages for suppliers to the education industry, who could achieve economies of scale in development, publication and distribution of educational materials.

At its best, a national curriculum is a powerful vehicle for shaping the next generation of Australian citizens, their knowledge of the world and the skills to make their way in it.  The downside however is that a national curriculum is politically prominent compared with different state-based curricula, inviting political manipulation as a major lever in ‘culture wars’.

The RSA considers that, on balance, a national curriculum is an advantage to Australia in that it provides a wise government the chance to positively shape the life chances of the next generation of Australian citizens.

Design of the National Curriculum

Through our involvement with the development of the civics and citizenship module of the national curriculum, the RSA has become familiar with the general design of the national curriculum.  An interesting and innovative aspect of the national curriculum is its flexibility.  It identifies traditional subject areas like English, science, maths and history but also cross-curricular “General Capabilities” like critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, personal and social competence, and intercultural understanding.  In theory, states and territories, school systems, or schools could comply with the mandatory curriculum by timetabling either subject areas or by focusing on the general capabilities.  We suspect that in practice, most schools will choose the first approach.  If this turns out to be the case, the national curriculum will fail to achieve its full potential.

The RSA has a particular interest in the development of the general capabilities, and believes these skills and attitudes are too valuable to leave to chance.

Recommendation 1

The Rationalist Society recommends all education systems (public, Catholic and independent) be required to demonstrate how they will ensure the development of the General Capabilities, and how these capabilities will be assessed.

Recommendation 2

The Rationalist Society recommends there be more guidance provided by ACARA in how the General Capabilities should be operationalised in the curricula promulgated by states and territories.

Content of the National Curriculum

As mentioned above, the RSA has been most involved with the development of the civics and citizenship module.  However, we have perused the other modules (particularly history) and are of the opinion that the content of these modules is appropriate for the 21st century, and for Australia’s geographic location and history.

There has been of late some commentary about the national curriculum not sufficiently reflecting Australia’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage.  According to Tony Taylor, Associate Professor at Monash University and an expert in history curriculum, the term Judeo-Christian is a relatively recent one, first used in the early 20th century by biblical scholars to describe the scope of Old and New Testament studies.  Later, it was used by Franklin Roosevelt to bolster solidarity with Europe’s persecuted Jews; by Ronald Reagan as part of Christian rhetoric against a godless Soviet Union; and, post September 11, to differentiate and condemn Islamists.

The RSA rejects the notion that Australia owes its foundations to some putative “Judeo-Christian” heritage.  In fact, Western nations owe as much, if not more, to the pervasive influence of ancient Greek and Roman ideas, systems and cultures.  And Australia in particular owes most of its early institutional history and culture to the expansive and empowering ideas of the 19th century Enlightenment, with its focus on freedom from the unearthly and unaccountable authority of the Church (whether Protestant or Catholic), freedom of individual thought and conscience, and pursuit of social equity in place of inherited wealth and privilege.

Recommendation 3

The Rationalist Society recommends that any change to the curriculum to increase emphasis on Australia’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage must be balanced by equal recognition of the role of ancient Greek and Roman ideas and systems, and the 19th century Enlightenment.

Process of developing the National Curriculum

The RSA has been one of community groups consulted by ACARA regarding the civics and citizenship module.  We found this process satisfactory, with ACARA being responsive to our approaches and fair in their responses.  We have no reason to believe other stakeholders have been treated any less well.  The RSA compliments ACARA on the way it has managed the consultation process with relevant stakeholder groups.

Recommendation 4

The Rationalist Society recommends a continuation of the process that has been used by ACARA thus far in consulting stakeholders regarding the development of the national curriculum.

Monitoring and Review

The RSA strongly supports the idea of monitoring and review as a logical part of any major project implementation.  However, reviews ought to be conducted at the appropriate time and ought to be carried out by appropriately qualified and competent people.  We are not convinced that either of these factors is demonstrated by the current Review.

There have been five modules formally approved by state and territory Ministers for rolling out thus far (English, maths, science, geography and history).  The next five modules (arts, health and physical education, technologies, economics and business, civics and citizenship) were due for adoption by Ministers but due to this review, have had to be “noted” only.

We believe this Review is premature and has been commissioned for political rather than educational purposes.  Calling for a Review at this time essentially treats schools as pawns in a political power game.  The business sector seeks (and often gets) predictability from the political sphere; the nation’s schools, parents and students deserve no less.  And yet this Review has increased anxiety and placed well-designed project implementation plans on hold.  It is badly timed.

Further, the qualifications and competence of the panel appointed to conduct the Review, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, have been called into question by many.  Mr Donnelly’s credentials in particular have generated significant suspicion, given his strong public criticisms of the national curriculum, which do nothing to support confidence in his capacity to conduct an impartial evaluation.

If the outcome of the Review is consistent with Mr Donnelly’s publicly stated personal views, the credibility of the Australian Government’s professionalism in the Education portfolio will be seriously eroded.  Australia’s international reputation as a leader in education will be damaged.

Recommendation 5

The Rationalist Society recommends that any changes to the shape or content of the national curriculum, the processes of stakeholder consultation, and the strategic process of curriculum development, implementation, monitoring and review take into account the value of Australia’s reputation for quality education, and credibility in public policy innovation.

Dr Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia Inc.

27 February 2014.

All the more reason.