The release of the new English syllabus for Years 11 and 12 students in New South Wales reveals a potentially less rigorous curriculum, which is likely to encourage students to study the easier course option now available.
The syllabus applies to all students in NSW undertaking the Higher School Certificate (HSC). It is set for implementation in 2018 and will be examined in 2019.
The new syllabus includes few changes in the design, rationale, aims or learning outcomes expected of students in Year 12.
A major shift, however, means that students:
will now study fewer texts (from four to three for Year 12 students on the standard English course, and from five to four in the advanced course)
are no longer required to study a novel or poetry in Year 12
can now receive an ATAR if they study the English Studies course – the least challenging English course (previously a non-ATAR course).
Why do we need a new curriculum?
The reasons given for this most recent curriculum change have been largely based on the NSW government’s Stronger HSC Standards “blueprint”. However, the assumption that a review of the senior English curriculum was necessary because of declining standards and the neglect of literary study cannot be supported by any research-based evidence.
According to the NSW Education Standards Authority’s (NESA) own statistics, the achievement levels of students in senior English have increased since the so-called McGaw reforms were introduced in 1999.
More students are undertaking the more demanding English courses and more students are achieving Band 6, the highest level possible in their HSC.
There is no evidence for declining standards in the ATAR senior English courses as a reason for this reform.
Of course, curriculum renewal is an essential and welcome process for ensuring optimal learning experiences and engagement for each new generation of students – provided that this renewal is based on evidence that clearly demonstrates the need for such reforms.
The syllabus was released without two vital components that teachers need to fully evaluate and interpret the syllabus: the prescribed text list and the examination specifications. Without these, it is impossible to speculate on the range of texts available for study or subject to examination.
What is apparent in the syllabus, however, is that students will be required to study fewer texts.
It has come as quite a surprise to English teachers to read that “the Bard is back”, given his drama has been a compulsory part of the higher-level English courses in NSW since 1911.
The Bard never went AWOL in NSW. Likewise, the claim that “classic” texts will now be mandatory is simply misinformation when the English text lists for the past 20 years have included more than 60% of titles that can be categorised as “great literature”.
In the previous Standard English course, students studied four mandatory texts: fiction, drama, poetry and either nonfiction or film or media or multimedia.
In the new syllabus, this has been reduced to three mandatory texts, with the removal of the mandatory study of fiction and poetry. Fiction and poetry are now options for Year 12 students.
In the Advanced English course, where students previously studied five mandatory texts (fiction, Shakespearean drama, poetry, drama or film, and either nonfiction or media or multimedia), they will now study only four mandatory texts. Again, fiction and poetry are optional.
Since 1911, all senior students in NSW have been required to study the core literary categories of fiction, poetry and drama. Now, for the first time in our history, students can complete Year 12 without having read a novel or poetry.
The syllabus and other documents pertaining to the reforms do not provide any evidence-based rationale for the removal of this requirement.
It is curious that we will now have an English curriculum in NSW that requires more literary engagement and rigour in Years 7-10 than in Year 12.
The previous reforms to the HSC (in the 1990s) were prompted by serious concerns about the flight of students from the more challenging senior English courses to the “soft” option of a theme-based course that did not require sustained textual study.
Many of us can recall the crisis surrounding this two-unit contemporary English course, whereby very capable students were opting for the less rigorous course, earning high marks and thus maximising their HSC English result and ATAR.
Since the McGaw reforms, no such option has been available to students. Rigour had been maintained and in fact strengthened. The NESA website provides enrolment statistics showing increases in candidature in the more rigorous, higher-level English courses, including strong enrolments in English Extension courses.
This new syllabus, however, will rewind the clock and trigger a repetition of the disastrous situation played out in English in the 1980s and 1990s.
Students can now elect to study the English (Standard) or the English (Advanced) courses.
Rather than electing to enrol in the more rigorous Advanced and Standard HSC English courses, students can undertake a far less demanding English Studies course. Prior to this new syllabus, this was a non-ATAR course. It was designed for students not wishing to proceed to university. There was no external examination in this course.
Now, any student can elect to enrol in the English Studies course and will be eligible for an ATAR.
In the high-stakes crucible of the HSC, it is a no-brainer that we will again see a stampede of students choosing the less rigorous English course to attain their two units of English.
They’d be mad not to. There is no incentive to undertake the more rigorous courses. NESA has not provided any reason for proceeding with this change, which flies in the face of research evidence and informed advice from the profession.
The full extent of the revisions, and their implications for teachers and students, will only be apparent when the syllabus can be read in concert with the prescribed text list and examination requirements, which ultimately drive the quality of teaching and learning in senior English in NSW.