National Curriculum: Labor’s Big Failure

Less than two months after the Rudd government took power, education minister Julia Gillard announced her national curriculum, and announced it would start in 2011.

Just four subjects, mind you – English, Maths, Science and History. The rest were to follow later.

The deadline was missed, and introduction was delayed until 2012. (Kevin Rudd nevertheless listed the national curriculum as one of his achievements in his farewell speech.)

But the replacement deadline was missed too – bumped down the track to 2013. Now last month New South Wales said it would hold the curriculum back until 2014 at the earliest. And teachers’ bodies have urged education ministers across the country to follow NSW’s lead.

Three years seems like a short time to enact a four-subject curriculum across the country. But for it to take six years is a debacle.

Sure, it hasn’t got one-tenth the publicity of the Malaysia Solution, or pink batts, or the mining tax and health reform reversals. Or even GroceryChoice. But the national curriculum should be one of the Government’s most embarrassing failures.

This is not the first national curriculum proposal to flounder.

In 1989 the Commonwealth government (Labor) got together with the states (also mostly Labor) and tried to forge a uniform curriculum. Education is, of course, a state responsibility. You can’t make a national curriculum without the consent of the states. But when the states started to turn Coalition, the deal collapsed.

That seems to be happening again. The Commonwealth’s authority to drive curriculum change relies entirely on the acquiescence of the states. While the new Coalition state governments in Victoria and New South Wales were initially supportive, they are turning hostile.

Perhaps a national curriculum is quixotic. But for decades it has been an article of faith among bureaucrats and the education establishment that Australia needs a national curriculum.

There are a large number of politicians and academics who seem to believe a policy is not serious unless it is a federal policy, a “national” approach is inherently and unquestionably better, and the Commonwealth Government is better placed to make good policy than state governments. Those beliefs are more ideological than anything else.

No doubt some state curricula are sub-optimal. But the Commonwealth has a less-than-absolute success rate in policy formation and implementation too. Simply claiming you want a “world-class curriculum” is no guarantee you can design one. And the slipping implementation of the curriculum does not inspire much hope.

In 2005, the academic Alan Reid argued in a Department of Education research paper previous attempts collapsed largely because they “failed to develop a rigorous rationale for national curriculum collaboration”.

Indeed, the practical arguments for a national curriculum stretch the bounds of credibility.

Gillard – and now Peter Garrett – speaks of the need to provide a consistent education to the 80,000 students who migrate between states each year.

It’s an old claim: in 1968, the federal education minister Malcolm Fraser spoke of the “very real difficulties faced by children who move from one state to another”. And it’s one which sounds convincing until you realise 80,000 is less than 3 per cent of the entire student body of three million.

Reforming the entire school system to cater for these students is absurd – even if we grant the doubtful assumption those students struggle terribly to adjust to their adopted state curricula, and that it’s a problem the Government must tackle urgently. (There are probably simpler ways to ease the transition for these few children.)

When the Howard government was considering their own national curriculum, Julie Bishop claimed it was necessary because “ideologues” had “hijacked” the state curriculum bodies.

This makes even less sense. It’s easier for ideologues to hijack one national curriculum than eight separate ones. And much more rewarding.

After all, under a national curriculum every single student in Australia will be taught from one song sheet. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority speaks about “shaping the lives of the nation’s future citizens”, how the curriculum must teach students to “work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”, and ensure they are “responsible global and local citizens”.

These are heady sentiments. The curriculum is explicitly designed not just to teach, but to “shape”.

So if the curriculum presents a distorted view of, say, the Industrial Revolution (an historical event which profoundly influences our understanding of the contemporary economic order) it matters. Do markets oppress or liberate? Is economic progress good?

Or if the curriculum suggests, as this one does, that human rights were given to us by treaty-makers at the United Nations, that strange but suggestive view will be embedded in future generations when they come to consider debates over rights in Australia.

Yet even as its implementation problems pile up, the national curriculum has still not been given the same critical examination as this Government’s other policy flops. That needs to change.