National curriculum should not be compulsory
19th October 2010

In a  comment piece below published in The Australian I argue that schools should have the freedom to adopt the national curriculum or equivalent - it should not be forced on all schools.

The national curriculum sounded like a good idea at the time.

Just like the Building the Education Revolution fiasco and the poorly implemented and over-budget computers in schools program.

So good, in fact, was the national curriculum notion, that when she was education minister Julia Gillard touted it as central to her vaunted education revolution.

Given falling standards, existing dumbed-down and politically correct state and territory curriculums and the poor performance of Australian students in international maths and science tests, it made sense to make schools teach a nationally designed curriculum that would be balanced, academically rigorous and world's best.

Unfortunately, as illustrated by the recent barrage of criticisms by bodies such as the NSW's Board of Studies and the reality that the national curriculum will not be fully implemented until 2013 instead of this year, it's clear, once again, that the ALP government has failed to deliver.

In addition to being rushed and poorly thought through, a major flaw in the BER program is that schools are forced to accept off-the-shelf designs and have little flexibility or control over what is built.

The national curriculum is also highly centralised and bureaucratic: all roads lead to Canberra. Under the current plans, schools will be forced to implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum and there will be little, if any, room for local content or educational philosophies that run counter to the approved orthodoxy.

Overseas research identifying the characteristics of stronger performing schools proves that old-style, command-and-control approaches to education do not work. European researcher Ludger Woessmann concludes that autonomy, choice and competition are what is required.

Such characteristics explain why Catholic and independent schools, even after adjusting for students' background, outperform government schools.

The joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee applies to the national curriculum. The membership of the body responsible, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, includes representatives from the various sector and professional organisations and, as such, decisions have to meet the demands of groups with often conflicting agendas.

The process of designing the curriculum, based on months of evaluation, feedback, rewriting and trialling is also guaranteed to produce a lowest-common-denominator approach, one that seeks to reach consensus.

Margaret Thatcher's experience as prime minister with the British national curriculum provides an illustration of how a reasonable idea soon becomes subverted by the bureaucratic process. The intention to have a few pages detailing what should be taught in English, science and mathematics mutated into thousands of pages covering nine subjects that drowned teachers in useless detail and meaningless PC edubabble.

Recent criticisms of the draft national curriculum include the history teachers association arguing that there is too much content and that the planned curriculum does not cater for the abilities and needs of all students.

The deans of science argue that the new curriculum fails to make science immediately engaging and entertaining as it "does not set out a coherent scheme of interest drivers engaging students in science".

Brian Burgess, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, has echoed this sentiment, saying: "In this day and age we need to be encouraging people to learn how to learn; just drowning them in content is an absolute waste of time."

Those familiar with debates in Australia over the past 20 years will recognise that phrases such as "learn how to learn", arguments that content is bad and that learning must be contemporary and entertaining exemplify the substandard, outcomes-based education model.

If the critics have their way and the national curriculum forsakes academic rigour and the belief that education is difficult in favour of what is immediately relevant then there is no doubt that, once again, generations of students will be submitted to a mediocre and superficial experience.

Such is the confused, disjointed and acrimonious state of the academy where educationalists refuse to reach agreement on what constitutes a sound curriculum, that maybe Karl Marx was correct when he said: "Education might be national without being governmental. Government might appoint inspectors whose duty it was to see that the laws were obeyed, just as the factory inspectors looked after the observance of the factory acts, without any power of interfering with the course of education itself."

There is another way. As I argued some years ago in Dumbing Down, instead of imposing a substandard national curriculum on every school in Australia, why not allow schools to teach the state-mandated curriculum or equivalent?

Many schools across Australia now have the freedom to teach alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate. Montessori and Steiner schools, with their unique educational philosophies and approaches to learning, exist alongside more orthodox government schools.

In an age of instant communication and globalisation schools should also have the freedom to choose from among a range of syllabuses. Why not, as is happening in the US, teach the Singapore or Japanese mathematics or science syllabus, given that such countries always outperform Australia?

Much of the ALP's education revolution is highly statist in its approach and based on the conceit that politicians and bureaucrats can pull the levers, press the buttons, manage the process and the desired outcome will result.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Given his past record, let's hope for Peter Garrett's sake that the national curriculum does not prove to be another home insulation fiasco in the making.

Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute and author of Australia's Education Revolution


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19th October 2010

In a  comment piece below published in The Australian I argue that schools should have the freedom to adopt the national curriculum or equivalent - it should not be forced on all schools.The na...
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