Curriculum, equity and resources: how we got lost in the Gonski debate

Gonski isn’t everything and we need to refocus the debate back to equity. School image from

It’s been a big week for education. Amidst all the confusion and politics on school funding of the last week there have been a couple of repeated mantras by the federal education minister – namely that we need a “robust curriculum” and a “focus on teacher quality”.

That these phrases are used in relation to the Gonski schools funding issue is somewhat misleading.

Yes, equity is a big issue in Australian education. If you had any doubts, you just have to look at the latest PISA results and what they show about the equity gap in Australian education. It showed that top socioeconomic group of students and those in the bottom group are separated by as much as two and a half years of schooling.

The Gonski review was explicitly a funding review. Its approach to improving equity was limited by its terms of reference that were influenced by the view that all that matters is school resourcing.

Yes, resources are very important, but there is more. Misinformed catchphrases like “improving teacher quality” or a “robust curriculum” are unlikely to cut it in the debate we really should be having about improving equity.

The narrow terms of reference of Gonski, and ensuing debates solely about funding, are a far cry from the complex view of educational equity that existed a few decades ago. Through the Commonwealth Schools Commission we had programs like the Disadvantages Schools Program and the Country Areas Program. These programs recognised that the very nature of schooling was an important part of the problem.

This is where Pyne’s mantra of a robust curriculum and teacher quality come in. Such statements assume a single and universal curriculum, and positions teaching quality in direct relationship to teaching that curriculum. Previous generations of equity thinking, and decades of educational sociology, show us that in fact this view of curriculum is a big part of the equity problem.

If we assume there is one curriculum, the key questions become who decides what it is? On what authority? Whose interests does it serve? And most importantly, what knowledge is of most worth?

Curriculum is a consensus about what we believe are the most important things that we know about the world, and our nation, at this point in time that we want to pass on to future generations. In the end it is only ever a representation of our world – time doesn’t allow us to pass on everything. Predictably then we end up with debates about what is in and what is out – examples being the endless debates about “the classics” or the “history wars”.

The problem is that the formal curriculum has been shown to be biased towards the interests of the most advantaged groups in society. In this way curriculum can be seen to serve their interests and not the interests of the least well off in society. Put another way, it reflects a world that is familiar to some students (often from well off families with well educated parents) and totally foreign to others (including many working class families and Aboriginal Students).

The Australian Curriculum to date has tried hard to balance the needs of both groups – the jury is still out on how well it has achieved this.

So what does Pyne mean when he talks about a robust curriculum? Clearly he is suggesting that he feels the present version isn’t robust at all. But by implication what he is implying is a curriculum that is universal and aligns with one set of cultural values.

To be clear I’m referring here to the curriculum as the broad social and cultural project of schooling across all the subjects students are introduced to at school. This is much wider than the narrow literacy, numeracy or scientific literacy measured in PISA, as reported this week, or NAPLAN. They are a type of curriculum, specifically key skills.

But they are only one part of any students’ education. I’m sure most people would want their students to learn more than these skills over their 13 years at school.

This wider view of curriculum impacts on those skills though, and the equity debate that has begun, as these skills are taught through cultural knowledge, e.g. the western scientific world view and the stories or examples used. If students can’t see themselves in these stories it’s much like teaching spelling by reciting a list of random words, akin to remembering a series of PIN numbers, rather than teaching their meaning.

The issue of curriculum and disadvantage wasn’t on the table in Gonski. In fact the word “curriculum” only appears 35 times in the main report. Only twice does the report refer to curriculum as an issue of disadvantage.

Presumably some of the funding can be used to assist teachers make this “robust” curriculum relevant to students. But that’s a double equity hit – to do so for students who can’t easily see themselves in that world takes much longer than for those for whom it is their world. Teachers are then measured and judged as “quality” by how well they get students through this curriculum (and improve our international rankings) rather than how many students they introduce new understandings of the world to.

In the end, the rhetoric of a robust curriculum and quality teaching linked to equity and international rankings ensures schools further serve the interests of the most advantaged. A true focus on equity instead starts with looking at curriculum for the least advantaged.