Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Curriculum Wars

By Simon Grose

The troubled saga of the national school curriculum has more turmoil ahead, and perhaps an unhappy ending.

You’d have to be wondering if the national school curriculum is worth all the strife.

The main justification for the urge to merge state and territory curricula into a national menu for creating optimal 21st century Australians was the changeover trauma experienced by an estimated 80,000 school students who move interstate each year.

First to take a serious shot at a national solution was Julie Bishop when she was Minister for Education under John Howard. She got no support from Labor politicians, neither federally nor in states and territories where they mostly held power. They decried the prospect of a Canberra takeover and an ideological agenda.

Then Labor gained power federally and Education Ministers Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett embarked on a dollar-and-stick Canberra takeover to impose a national curriculum that is ideologically tinged if not tie-dyed.

In 2011 the ACT was the first to adopt the new Years 1–10 curricula for English, Mathematics, Science and History. Five other jurisdictions followed in 2012, Victoria in 2013, and this year NSW is making it fully national for those core subjects.

At the same time, the Coalition is back in charge in Canberra and Education Minister Christopher Pyne has mounted a review that will undoubtedly recommend changes to the curriculum and the methods of teaching it.

He and his Labor predecessors should be ashamed that they have allowed this important area of societal administration to become a partisan battleground. For all the perceived failings of the previous state-based system, obsessing over politico-cultural ideological “themes” was not one of them.

Any gains for students and teachers who move between jurisdictions seem likely to be more than wiped out by setbacks caused by episodic upheavals as the curriculum-makers lurch from one fashion to the next in the wake of political cycles.

Hopefully, the more turmoil Canberra generates the less likely it will hold sway.

In the front lines – where teachers meet students, headmasters meet teachers, and state bureaucracies meet headmasters – people work out tactics to meet the requirements of any curriculum while doing what they consider best to educate students. This adaptive rebellion occurs in inverse proportion to the credibility of the curriculum-setting process and its products.

At its upcoming meeting the Ministerial Council will have finalised curricula for all other subjects on the table. With Pyne’s review still underway, they are unlikely to endorse them. After the review reports, all curricula will be up for chop and change, a process that will mean the 2016 school year will be first opportunity for them to be implemented.

That’s plenty of time for politicians to play up. Some jurisdictions may play an opt-out card. That may not be such a bad thing.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (