Should all schools, whether government, Catholic or independent, be forced to follow a centrally designed and monitored curriculum?
And should this central curriculum be imposed upon schools regardless of the ability, interests and motivation of their students or the character, needs and aspirations of the communities they serve?
These questions are more than just academic, given recent moves to give schools greater autonomy while mandating a centrally designed curriculum. This is illustrated by the Western Australian Independent Public Schools initiative and by states imposing their own curriculum like Victoria’s AusVELS and the NSW syllabuses.
Concerns raised by Haset Sali, former head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, about the extremist nature of the curriculum in some Muslim schools also raise the question of what should be taught in the nation’s classrooms and who should decide.
State or schools: who decides?
A free market, neo-conservative answer would be to allow autonomy and choice at the local level and to argue that the state should not interfere with what is taught. Arguments against the US Common Core curriculum being implemented by the Obama administration are often couched in terms of freedom of the individual and the dangers of government intervention.
On the other hand, many on the cultural-left side of education base their arguments on the grounds of equity and social justice. They reason that all students, regardless of background or type of school attended, are entitled to a common curriculum. This commonality would enable all students to have access to a rigorous, balanced and worthwhile education.
Education and enculturation
The Manifesto for a Democratic Curriculum published in Australian Teacher in February 1984 describes the curriculum challenge as involving:
a conflict between two propositions about curriculum: that it should become more diverse, thus reflecting and addressing the very different needs and interests of learners; or that it can and must be essentially a common experience in which diversity is acknowledged and addressed, but not allowed to lubricate a new slide into inequality.
The authors of the manifesto argue that one of the prime purposes of education is enculturation. They reason that a commitment to equality should be measured by the extent to which students gain
the kind of knowledge which helps them participate productively and meaningfully in the general culture.
And defining education in terms of enculturation is not restricted to the cultural left. Matthew Arnold’s argument in Culture and Anarchy that culture, and by implication education, should deal with the “best that has been thought and said” is often referred to by conservatives when arguing about the purpose of education.
With enculturation, all students become familiar with what the Victorian Blackburn Report describes as “our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”.
Balancing difference with the common good
Education also plays a significant social role. In a pluralist, multicultural society, the need is to balance diversity and difference in the curriculum with a commitment to the common good and a society characterised by tolerance, mutual obligation and trust.
The task in a liberal, democratic society, as noted by Professor Brian Crittenden, one-time head of the Graduate School of Education at La Trobe University, is not an easy one. He writes in Thinking About Education (published by Longman, 1996),
If such a society is committed to a plurality of values and ways of life, how can one of the central objectives of education be justifiably favoured in a national common curriculum?
One answer is to suggest that all students are introduced to a curriculum that deals with the political and legal institutions, concepts and values that allow liberal, democratic societies such as Australia to exist in the first place and to be so peaceful and prosperous.
Tolerance, respect for diversity and a commitment to the common good do not arise intuitively, accidentally or in a vacuum. They are the products of a particular culture and particular historical forces.
When discussing what he terms a liberal education associated with the rise of western civilisation, Crittenden also favours a curriculum that is inherently moral, committed to rationality and which balances the rights of the individual with the rights of society at large.
Based on the concept of cultural literacy made famous by American educator E. D. Hirsch, it is also important that a common curriculum introduces students to the body of evolving knowledge and understanding of a society. Without this, participation in society as critically informed and empowered citizens is impossible.
In order to not overwhelm schools and de-professionalise teachers, it is important that a common curriculum is based on a core/elective approach. This would avoid a situation like the British national curriculum. This was so detailed and cumbersome that an inquiry commissioned by the Conservative government in 2011 recommended that it be slimmed back to what was essential and to give schools greater flexibility and choice.
The ideal is where there is a core curriculum that is common and compulsory across all schools, yet which still allows time to deal with what schools consider important in relation to the formal curriculum and extra-curricula and co-curricula activities.
Flexibility and choice at the local level is especially important for Catholic and independent schools, as well as government schools, to enable them to reflect what makes them unique and to meet the needs and aspirations of the students, parents and communities they serve.