Will the curriculum review make it in to schools? It’s a political waiting game

So the curriculum has been reviewed, but how does that get approved for implementation in classrooms? AAP

The Review of the Australian Curriculum was released last month and the initial responses by the federal government and others soon followed. So what happens now for this review, an analysis of the national school curriculum by the government’s two appointed reviewers? Is it likely to have action messages for schools or state and territory systems?

The political process has not yet swung into action. State and territory education ministers and the federal minister, Christopher Pyne, are to discuss its recommendations at an Education Council meeting in December.

Pyne noted in the government response that he’d be consulting with his colleagues over the next few months:

This is an opportunity for my state and territory colleagues to work with me to ensure the curriculum is delivering the outcomes we want for our students.

While this appears to centre his own role, the tone of the initial response invites discussion. That is essential in a context where states and territories retain control of the curriculum for their schools.

Most of the states and territories will have their curriculum authorities or policy branches developing briefings about response options for their ministers to take to Canberra. Each authority already has a well-developed strategy for dealing with the national curriculum, which started being adopted in 2011 in some jurisdictions.

ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) oversees the development of the Australian Curriculum. An overview of the implementation timelines adopted by education jurisdictions to date on can be found on the ACARA website. Even without the latest review, the Australian Curriculum is up to Version 7.2.

The smallest educational jurisdiction - ACT - fully adopted the national curriculum, given its tiny departmental infrastructure. Larger states such as NSW and Victoria adapted elements within their state curriculum frameworks. The diversity among the state, territory, Catholic and independent school sectors indicates that negotiations to date have not been straightforward.

So when will the decisions be made?

Decision-making on the national curriculum is quite convoluted because education remains a state responsibility. Currently, the ACARA board makes recommendations to the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee (made up of the director-generals/secretaries/chief executives for school education and early childhood education and care in Australia) and the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (made up of all Commonwealth, state and territory education ministers). The standing council, not ACARA, makes any final decision to endorse a curriculum document.

From review to blackboard, there’s a lot of politicking in between. Flickr/Enokson, CC BY

As ACARA makes clear in its important background statement to inform the review, states and territories determine timelines for any implementation. These take into account the needs of their systems, schools and teachers.

Once the ministers have had their formal discussion in December, and presuming there is an agreement which will not founder on states’ rights by allowing for a sufficient variety of approaches, then the standing council is likely to refer its recommendations back to ACARA for further development.

This will be the tricky part that tests ACARA’s political and curriculum acumen, and its ability to turn any accepted review recommendations into curriculum documents. The review’s recommendations challenge the expert and professional processes ACARA has used for ensuring a good curriculum design. The recommendations include significant cutbacks to a small mandatory core for each subject, and the reduction of the “general competencies” and cross-curriculum priorities, which have been central to the current curriculum.

Making these complicated processes even more complex, the review also recommended major changes to ACARA’s mandate. The Australian government seemed to accept these recommendations in broad terms. Its response suggested it would use the legislatively mandated six-month review of ACARA starting in December to canvass the options and potentially change the legislation.

Thus it may be possible that only some of the recommendations – if agreed by the ministers – will be referred to ACARA for further work, awaiting the outcome of the federal government’s review of governance. Or maybe all recommendations will be held off.

ACARA has not made public statements about the review or the the government’s initial response. Like the ACARA board, the education community will need to wait and see what happens at the education ministers’ meeting in December. It is highly unlikely that any major changes will happen before 2016.

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