Three things our nation’s schools need (none is a national curriculum)

There are areas in which our schools need reform, a national curriculum isn’t one of them.

On January 10 most electors were still brushing sand from their toes and basking in the afterglow of the Ashes victory. It was on that day that the federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne announced a formal review of Australia’s National Curriculum. Two questions came to mind then, and still do: why? And why then?

The first question is probably easier to answer. The National Curriculum cavalcade was seen by Pyne as taking on a life of its own. It had, he felt, become a hostage to the ‘Education Bureaucracy’. It had also produced positive results quite slowly. After four years of careful consultation and comprehensive sectoral approvals, only about half of disciplines (like English and Science) had actually ‘gone national’ and were in place. Another 30% were still in the testing phase. And a final 20% were still to begin any serious implementation.

As professional as the endeavour had been at the state and teacher level, the federal results were pretty uneven. So, for an activist minister keen to reform the schools portfolio, this must have been a frustratingly mixed scorecard.

But what of the timing? Was this mini-review intended to kill off ACARA, the National Curriculum project, or both? The level of interest in the process has been so high that the period for tendering submissions has been extended until today, Friday 14 March.

But is there a better solution than this review? I believe there is, and that is has three elements.

1. Let the approved subjects continue

All approved subjects which have already begun to be taught nationally should not be frozen or unwound. Instead, they should be supported, celebrated, tracked and analysed carefully over the next three years. This will show if they yield better learning outcomes, success and engagement rates for all students, as measured by NAPLAN tests and other indicators.

2. Recognise Australia’s world-class curriculum

It should be recognised that Australia already has some of the world’s best curricula — the cupboard is far from bare. The Foundation Year 10 Victorian curriculum has been adopted by a number of international schools in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as a “gold standard” system of education. And, with virtually no marketing and promotion, the Year 12 VCE has been licenced by more than 10 secondary colleges in mainland China, with full recognition and accreditation.

Demand is rising every year. At the same time, the NSW Foundation Year 10 studies program is a featured Australian partner of TES Connect, billed as the “world’s largest network of teachers”. The launch of TES Australia in July 2013 enabled Australian students and teachers to access, and contribute to, a vast array of learning materials online. Meanwhile, the NSW Year 12 HSC is recognised globally as a top quality curricular and assessment system. Like the VCE, it is a promising Australian education export opportunity.

So my question is: why are we reviewing teaching and learning curriculum structures and offerings like these, when they are already ranked among the best in the world? We should empower all Australian states and territories to pick and choose from the existing VCE and HSC subjects and approaches. This will give access to a proven national Year 12 curriculum, applicable across Australia and overseas.

3. Standardise assessments and credits

The public debate about Australia’s National Curriculum has concentrated far too much on issues of content. Almost the same core literature texts are taught in schools the length and breadth of the country. Visit Darwin, the Derwent River or Derby and odds-on the Year 9/10 students will be reading The Lord of the Flies or The Great Gatsby. Year 12 students will be studying a Shakespeare play. Year 7 students will be considering something by Tim Winton.

The issue is not the pedagogy or the texts chosen, for which there is already a huge degree of agreement nation-wide, the issue is that the apparatus around these studies — the methods of assessment, moderation and scaling — which vary so dramatically across Australia. There has been such a variety and a fervent embrace of state-based systems; from the OP scores of Queensland to the former TE Ranks of South Australia to the ATAR scores of Victoria and other states.

Moving interstate reveals a complicated process of credit recognition and transfer. The entire Eurozone has managed to put in place the Erasmus credit transfer scheme, amongst nations who speak more than 15 different languages and who have been at war with each other at regular intervals throughout history, yet in Australia - a single, peaceful polity - we have eight different systems of curriculum control and assessment. Each one has a governing board of great skill and ability. Each one is intensely proud of its individual history. But there is precious little correspondence between them at the level of the student.

Clearly what we do not need is a ninth scheme of moderation, assessment and tertiary ranking at the federal level. We need an open, common market of assessment and reporting arrangements the length and breadth of Australia. And that market should be consistent, comparable and transferable.

This is as much an issue for COAG as it is one for Ministries of Education. If the National Curriculum project is to be worthy of the name, it must address these practical dimensions and outcomes.