Op-ed: 'Use national approach: a curriculum for the whole nation'

13 Oct 2014 Article

Originally appeared in Wednesday 13 October 2014’s edition of The Australian

EVERY architect knows that for a building to pass the test of time it must have a strong foundation. In education, our children also need a strong foundation, particularly in literacy and numeracy, to prepare for future success.

The Coalition government has doggedly focused on improving teacher quality, increasing school autonomy and increasing parental engagement. We have made considerable progress, rolling out a $70 million Independent Public Schools Initiative and reviewing teacher education.

The Coalition promised during the last election to hold an independent review into the Australian curriculum following concerns from parents, teachers, professional educators, associations and academics. It is also good public policy to review progress before proceeding further. The review, appointed in January, released its final report yesterday.

The Coalition believes a rigorous curriculum is one of the foundations of a quality education system. While it cannot ensure quality unless supported by quality teachers and school systems that promote parental choice and engagement, it is a key driver.

Our declining education performance relative to other countries over the last decade, indicates quality has been more talked about than achieved despite some of the biggest spending increases on education in our history, vastly enhanced teacher-student ratios, and a massive expansion of teacher education courses and enrolments.

Ultimately, what matters however is whether children have learnt what they need to secure worthwhile jobs, have the knowledge and skills to enhance national productivity, and what our society needs to have informed, civic minded citizens. Many countries, including most that perform better than us, take a national approach to curriculum. I appreciate that some don’t. But in a small, united country like ours, developing a national curriculum makes considerable sense. Australia moved towards a national curriculum over time. The Howard government started the process, and its successors continued it.

Having a national curriculum enables efficiencies in development and implementation through the sharing of learning and teaching resources. It makes clear what all Australian students should learn and the quality of learning expected as they progress through school. It signals to teachers what is to be taught and informs parents what should be expected from the education system regardless of where they live.

After receiving almost 1600 submissions, including from all states and territories, over 72 special consultations with organisations and individuals, and commissioning 15 research reports from subject specialists, the review has produced a 300 page report with 30 recommendations.

The review found that the curriculum was overcrowded, especially in the primary years, sometimes to the detriment of foundation skills like literacy and numeracy. And the cross curriculum priorities added to the complexity and need to be reconceptualised. The Australian government agrees. We also agree with the review’s suggestions to improve parental engagement in curriculum issues. Progress is underway across jurisdictions supporting this, but the review has given further impetus about making the Australian curriculum more accessible to parents. Parents cannot engage in their children’s education unless they understand what is being taught and why. And the review’s proposals to make the curriculum more inclusive to meet the needs of students with learning difficulties and disabilities, has our strong endorsement.

The review was asked to assess the Australian curriculum’s balance — were some areas overemphasised, while others neglected? It found several problems: in English, phonics and phonemic awareness needs to be improved. In scientific disciplines there was breadth rather than depth, and in geography the physical aspects of the subject were underplayed.

The Coalition government supports suggestions to rebalance different subject areas, and wants any changes to be referred to education experts.

That is why we also support the recommendation for an overarching framework to guide future content development and evaluation.

This important report will not languish. It will be on the agenda for the next major meeting of the Council of Australian Governments’ Education Council in December. I look forward to working with my state and territory colleagues to develop practical actions concerning the review’s recommendations to ensure the Australian curriculum contributes more effectively to delivering a quality education system.

Christopher Pyne is the Education Minister.